Basic jpeg workflow. Post-processing.

If you have your camera set up to produce consistent, correctly exposed, jpegs…using all the available auto, program, and special modes for a wide variety of situations, then post-processing does not need to be either a mystery or a chore. In fact, once your camera is set up, you will find that most of your photos of any particular kind (wildlife, birds, macros…landscapes or people) will require exactly the same processing…so much so that if your chosen post-processing program or app allows you to create presets or save a set of edits, you will be able to process most images by choosing the right “one-touch” preset. 

If, that is, if you have your cameras set up correctly. See Basic camera settings for Wildlife, birds, and macro.

Basic controls: Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, Snapseed, Polarr. Touch or click to enlarge. For more control shots see below.

Why do you need to post-process at all? The reality of digital photography is that any good image can be made better with a few tweaks. I am going to cover the basic edits here, as they are done in the more modern apps and programs, both on the mobile and desk and lap-top platforms: Snapseed, Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, and Polarr on phones and tablets, and Lightroom or PhotoShop Elements on desk and lap-tops. You can make these edits in PhotoShop itself as well, but it might take a combination of settings to duplicate the effects of a simple slider in one of the more modern programs. 

Lighting: Even a correctly exposed digital image, the shadows will often be too dark, and the highlights too bright, when compared to what the human eye sees in the same situation. The eye sees further into the shadows than the camera does, and we can see detail in bright areas that the camera will render as blocks of solid white or bright color. Cameras today have some kind of compensation for this built in, generally called Dynamic Range Control, or DR Enhansement, or iContrast, or Active D Lighting, etc. Even when taking advantage of these in-camera adjustments (and you should be taking advantage of them), there is no way the sensor can see or record the full range of light that the human eye does. By adjusting the shadows and highlights in post-processing we can produce an image that has the appearance of being closer to what our eye sees in any given situation. To improve the image we need to “open” the shadows (brighten them) and “pull back” the highlights. Not a lot, or the image will look flat and uninteresting, but some. That is the first change to make. In a traditional program like PhotoShop these changes are made with the “curves” tool. In the other apps and programs it is made with the Shadows and Highlights sliders. Slide shadows to the plus side until the shadows open to suit you. Pull the highlights slider to the negative side until you see the detail you want in the bright areas of the image. Do not expect miracles. The shadows slider will not reclaim shadows that are totally black, and the highlight slider will not restore detail in totally overexposed whites or brights…but generally these adjustments will produce a more pleasing, more life-like image. And don’t overdo either. You want the image to still have enough contrast between the darks and lights to be three-dimensional and interesting.

Detail: Because of the structure of digital image sensors, all digital images need some sharpening. Most cameras, when you shoot in jpeg, apply sharpening in camera. I set my cameras to apply the least possible sharpening in-camera, since it is better done in post-processing. In-camera sharpening can produce extra noise in the background of the image, and unnaturally sharp edges. The sharpening tool in most modern apps and programs applies a combination of traditional edge sharpening and unsharp masking to produce a natural looking result, with a simple slide of the sharpness slider until it looks right. PhotoShop is the exception again, where you still have separate sharpen and unsharp mask tools. Do not oversharpen! It will produce the same negative effects on image quality as in-camera sharpening often does. If an image, or parts of an image are out of focus or motion blurred, they will not be improved by oversharpening. Quite the opposite. Apply just enough sharpening to render the details in the image as they would look to the human eye, if you were at approximately the right distance to make the subject the same size as it is in the image. 

The second aspect of sharpening is most often called clarity (it is called structure in Snapseed). Clarity increases the local-area-contrast of the image to bring out fine detail in hair, fur, feathers, or the fine textures of flower petals (or human skin). Think of it as controlling the “inner detail” of the image. In PhotoShop we produce this effect by using unconventional settings of the unsharp mask tool. Most modern apps and programs will have a clairity (or “structure“) slider. Again, just slide the clarity slider to the positive side until it produces the effect you want. (If you slide it to the negative side it will become really obvious what the tool is doing.) Hint: you do not want to overdo the clarity, especially in images with people’s faces in them. In fact one of the legitimate uses of negative clarity is in portraits, where you might not want to see the “inner detail” of every skin blemish 🙂 Hint 2: Increaseing the clarity will sometimes have the effect of making the whole image look a little darker. You can offset this with the Exposure or Brightness sliders.

Color: The auto color temperature controls in today’s cameras are very good. They can adjust the jpeg processing to produce natural looking colors in almost any light. They are almost as good at this as the human eye. Amost. What can be improved in most digital images is the “pop” or “impact” of the colors…especially if you have already adjusted the shadows and highlights. Modern apps and programs have a control called vibrance (sometimes grouped with clarity and sometimes grouped with color temperature and saturation…and, as always, called something else in Snapseed:  “ambiance“). Vibrance looks at the image and determines which colors might be undersaturated (not rich or vivid enough). Generally these are the blues and greens, and sometimes reds. Sliding the vibrance slider will increase the saturation and brightness of only those colors that the program or app thinks need it. It will generally make the sky a darker blue, and the green trees brighter green. Or it might pick up the similar hues in a bird’s plumage or a flower’s petals. Slide the vibrance (or ambiance) slider to the positive side until you produce a pleasing effect. (And again, sliding it to the negative side will give you a better idea of what you are actually changing.) Once more, do no overdue it. If the control is adjusting reds, or purples, especially, it is easy to get the reds and purples so saturated that you no longer see fine detail in those areas of the image. And it is also easy to get the sky unnaturally blue. Exercise restraint. Again, PhotoShop (the last time I looked) did not have a vibrance slider or control. You would have to adjust the individual color channels using the curves control. Not easy to do. It is worth mentioning that Snapseed’s ambiance control has more effect on the brightness and color temperature of the image (by color temperature we mean the balance between warm tones and cold ones, red and yellow and orange being warm…just think the color of fire, and blues and blue-greens being cold), than the vibrance control in the other apps and programs. It produces almost a warm glow…which is pleasing in some images, but not in others.

Before and after. Original and basic edits applied. I also used the brush in Polarr to bring up detail in the chin patch 🙂

To summarize, these are the adjustments all most all digital images will need, or benefit from. The amounts will depend on your camera and your taste.

  1. open the shadows
  2. pull back the highlights
  3. sharpen the image
  4. increase the clarity of the image
  5. increase the vibrance of the image
  6. exercise restraint…work for the natural look not the spectacular. 🙂

Lightroom controls, lots of presets, but none of them user custom, local controls limited to gradient and radial
Snapseed. Main controls. Tune Image where most of what we want is. Details. Local Controls: brush and radial.
Polarr. General controls. Light opened and you can see the others, Local controls, Custom filters
 

Wildlife, birds, and macro images will benefit from more sharpening and clarity than landscapes, and will not need as much shadow, highlight, and vibrance control. Landscapes will generally need more shadow, highlight, and vibrance control, and less clarity and sharpness. People shots will not like much sharpening or clarity at all (at all), and can stand only a touch of vibrance. Shadow and highlights can be effective but you need to be careful not to produce a cartoony look. 

In programs that allow me too, I will set up three presets, or saved looks, or custom filter (all names for the same thing…a set of edits that are saved and can be applied with a single touch or click to the nickname). I love the way Snapseed works, and it is the one app that will run on any mobile platform (not matter how underpowered), but it does not yet have the ability to save a set of edits and apply them to a different image. Lightroom on the desk and lap-top has this ability and is excellent…but Lightroom for mobile platforms does not. PhotoShop Elements and Polarr both save sets of edits (My Looks in PSE, and Custom Fliters in Polarr). For exactly that reason, my go-to post-processing program on the desk and lap-top is Lightroom, and my go-to apps on my tablet are PSE and Polarr. (PSE for landscapes, because the shadow tool is more effective, and Polarr for everything else, since it is faster, and has a deeper feature set than PSE.) 

An in-camera HDR (high dynamic range, three shots blended for exposure) image processed in PhotoShop Express. More shadow and highlight control to really open shadows, retrieve detail in clouds, and bring up the green in the foliage.

Honestly, if you have your camera set up right for quality jpegs, you will rarely have to go beyond these basic edits…and most often will be able to apply one of your saved presets or custom filters. If you need to to more, they you really need to ask yourself if the image is worth saving. Most of the time, even with more powerful tools and more sophisticated techniques, you will not be able to produce the image you had in mind when you pressed the shutter. Sorry. That is just the way it is with digital. 

One exception is the dehaze or defog control that is available in Lightroom (both mobile and -top) and in PhotoShop Elements and Polarr on mobile. The dehaze tool, like the others covered, takes care not to overdo it, but it can be effective in restoring contrast to an image that is washed out due to an over abundance of blue refracted light…as in fog or haze, or the effects of shooting into the sun. It selectively removes diffuse blue spectrum light from the image. It will also darken the image overall, so some compensation with the exposure or brightness control is generally needed, but it can improve some shots dramatically. It is never part of my basic presets, looks, or custom filters, as I only use it rarely, but it is really useful on occasion. 

Another exception is what we call local adjustments. In PhotoShop to make local adjustments you have to use the selective brushes and masking. In Lightroom, Snapseed, and Polarr, you can apply them quickly and easily using specialized controls. Lightroom on the desktop has the best implementation. You can apply gradient or radial filters, or you can brush on adjustments to just a specific portion of the image. In Lightroom on the mobile platform you only have the gradient and radial options. Snapseed has radial filters and a brush, but the brush is not very fine. Polarr, on the mobile platform has the set that is closest to Lightroom desk and lap-top: gradient, radial, and and finely controllable brush. I have not found much use for a radial filter (basically round and graduated from the center) in any app or program, but I use the gradient filters on occasion to darken the sky and lighten the foreground in a particularly difficult landscape shot. You just drag a gradient over the image, top to bottom or bottom to top, and then adjust things like exposure, brightness, clarity, vibrance, etc. The effects are applied as a gradient…most intense at one edge of the image and then gradually fading to nothing at the other edge. You can actually apply two gradients (I call them dueling gradients), one from the top and one from the bottom to, as I mentioned, darken the sky at the same time you lighten the foreground. 

The other local control that I do use is the brush, especially in Lightroom (-top) and Polarr (mobile). The brush allows me to decrease the brightness of, say the white patch on the chin of a otherwise correctly exposed Great Blue Heron, to retrieve detail in the feathers there. I simply select the brush control and paint over the area to be changed, then apply negative exposure. I can do the same thing with the clarity control to make the eye in an image pop. Just paint over the eye, and increase clarity. Again, I do this kind of extra editing to maybe one in 300 images. 

Finally, there is one app available on iPads and Window’s tablets which does what no other will do…on those very rare occasions when the there is something in the image that just has to go…whether is an out of focus branch in an otherwise perfect composition of a bird, or beer can on an otherwise pristine beach. TouchRetouch does a better job of removing and filling than any other app I have used. You simply paint out, or lasso, the offending object, press go, and the app removes the object and seamlessly fills in the hole by very intelligently extrapolating from the surround. When it works it is magic. It does not always work. Sometimes the background is just to complex or the objectionable thing is too close to your subject, etc. But is is always worth a try when you have an image that requires, or could benefit from its magic TouchRetouch. 

TouchRetouch used to remove distracting out of focus branch.

In my opinion, for general editing and post-processing there is no match for Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, though it does require you to import every image you want to process into its catalog. On the mobile platform there is no reason not to use PhotoShop Express (especially as it is free…though to unlock all its features you have to have a Adobe subscription). It works very much like Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, and allows you to save your editing settings as a custom My Look. Polarr is becoming my go-to image processor on my iPad Pro, because of its speed and deep feature set, and the ease with which you can save and apply our editing settings as custom filers. To unlock all features it cost $20, but that also gives you access to Polarr on any platform you might use…desk or -laptop, Andriod phone or tablet, iPad or iPhone, and even Chromebooks. It is available for them all. 

So again, get your camera set up for consistently well exposed jpeg images, and apply a few basic edits in the program or app of your choice, and you will have consistently satisfying images. 

BIF: The Nikon Version

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR. Shutter preferred. 1/640 @ 1200mm @ ISO 100 @ f7.1
Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR. Nikon P900. Shutter preferred. 1/640 @ 1200mm @ ISO 100 @ f7.1

A while back I posted my original BIF (Birds in Flight) article, which pretty much covered BIF with the Canon SX50/60 (and hopefully 70) models and the Sony HX400V. (See here.)

This post expands BIF coverage to embrace the Nikon P series…the P610 and P900 in particular.

Focus against a blue sky is one thing. Focus against a landscape background is much more difficult.
Focus against a blue sky is one thing. Focus against a landscape background is much more difficult.

With the Canons and the Sony, the built in Sports Mode did and excellent job with BIF. On the Nikons…not so much. The default (and unchangeable) focus mode for Sports is the medium spot focus square…which makes getting on a BIF very difficult. And should you get the bird in focus when you press the shutter release, the camera does NOT follow focus. Focus is established by the first lock, and does not change as the bird moves…so, even if you pan with the bird as the camera takes its burst of 10 high speed continuous shots (also default and unchangeable) chances are pretty good that only the first shot will be in focus (if any are). Worse yet, even though this is Sports Mode and supposedly designed for action, Nikon did not bias the exposure system for high shutter speeds, so most often you will have motion blur as well as focus issues. Nikon does not seem to understand what a Sports Mode is supposed to do…but then Nikon’s control software has a lot of short-comings. Sports Mode is a particularly bad example.

I have gotten some great BIF with the Nikon Sports Mode, and it is worth a try in really good light, with cooperative birds.

Nikon Sports Mode BIF
Nikon Sports Mode BIF. 1/500th @ ISO 100 @ f5.6. 

I recently spent a week at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro New Mexico. As noted in the previous BIF post, the Bosque is certainly one of the best places in North America to practice BIF. In my week there I took hundreds of BIF exposures and developed a technique that works pretty well…almost as well as Sony’s Sports Mode.

What you need for BIF is an auto focus mode that will quickly and reliably lock on to birds in motion against a blue sky…or against a landscape background. And, you need high enough shutter speeds to freeze motion.

Snow Geese. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P900
Snow Geese. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P900

On the Nikons, setting the control dial to “S” for shutter preferred allows you to control the shutter speed. Leave everything else on Auto (ISO, etc.). I find that in good light, 1/640th is enough to freeze the wing motion of most BIF, while still giving you a reasonably low ISO for fine detail. In low light…dawn or dusk…1/250th does a good job with all but the wing-tips. Your ISO will be 400-800 (or even higher) but you will get some decent shots.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache NWR. Custom BIF mode. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1. 1200mm equivalent.
Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache NWR. Custom BIF mode. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1. 1200mm equivalent.

For the most efficient focus, set the camera to Target finding auto focus. Target finding auto focus is the default in Auto and Program modes, and is your traditional wide angle focus where the camera decides what your might be trying to focus on. I do not generally recommend letting the camera make that decision, but for BIF on the Nikons, Target finding auto focus proved to be fast and accurate more often than any other mode. I was getting 70% or better quick accurate focus on BIF against a blue or clouded sky, and better than 50% against a landscape background.  That is actually very good performance.

Focus against a background. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P610. 1440mm equivalent. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1
Focus against a background. Custom BIF mode. Nikon P610. 1440mm equivalent. 1/640th @ ISO 100 @ f7.1

I found that in following fast moving birds, high speed continuous was easier than low speed…since the black out between images is long enough on low speed so that I would loose my pan and the bird would go out of frame.

Another focus against a background example. Snow Geese.
Another focus against a background example. Snow Geese.

General BIF advice: 1) don’t try to shoot at the long end of the zoom, especially as you are developing your technique. Finding focus and keeping the bird in frame are both easier at 600-1000mm equivalent fields of view, than they are at 1200-2000mm. Remember, the DSLR/long lens crowd are shooting at 400-600mm and cropping. 2) Pan with the birds before pressing the shutter for focus. Pick the birds up as soon as possible, and pan with them until they are close enough for a satisfying image. Then half press the shutter for focus. If you get focus lock, then shoot off a burst.

Northern Harrier. Focus on birds coming head on is the most difficult of all.
Northern Harrier. Focus on birds coming head on is the most difficult of all.

As always, take a lot of exposures! Try, try, and try again. And don’t worry about the misses. Celebrate the hits!

Classic flight shot. Sandhill Crane. Bosque del Apache NWR.
Classic flight shot. Sandhill Crane. Bosque del Apache NWR.

P&S in the Tropics!

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Rio Santiago, Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Rio Santiago. Sony HX400V

The tropics provide one of the richest and most varied arrays of photographic opportunities of anyplace on earth…but they also provide definite challenges for any photographer…including, of course, Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. From the dense, dark, dim (and often damp) canopy of the rain and cloud forests to the harsh light of the dry forest and uplands in the rain-shadow of the mountains, exposure is always a difficult issue. Then too, focus in the rain forest, with all the vegetation, and the dim light, can be a real problem.  It is not much easier in the glare of the dry forest.

I recently enjoyed a week at the Rain-forest Lodge at Pico Bonito in Honduras, spending each day in different location in the area…from deep rain-forest on the shoulders of the mountains, to coastal mangrove lined rivers, to the Honduran Emerald Reserve in the dryer country inland.

It was not a photo expedition…we were primarily birding…but it gave me a chance to experience the joys and challenges of the tropics first hand, and to put my super-zoom point and shoot to the test. For stationary and particularly cooperative birds (and since it was a ZEISS sponsored trip and I was one of the leaders), I also carried a light-weight digiscoping rig…the compact ZEISS DiaScope 65FL spotting scope, a 30x wide-field eyepiece, a Canon S120 on the Digidapter for ZEISS, and the wonderful Roadtrip carbon fiber travel tripod from MeFoto…the whole thing weighing in at something under 6 pounds.

Most of my digiscoping rig. The camera and adapter are in a pouch on my waist. Great tripod!
Most of my digiscoping rig. The camera and adapter are in a pouch on my waist. Great tripod! You can see the two 7Ds and long lenses in the group.

In my group there were, of course, people carrying Canon 7Ds and either the 400mm prime or the 100-400 zoom, so I had a chance to observe and compare how the full DSLR/Long Lens rig handled the same tropical situations. I have to say, my complete outfit, super-zoom P&S, and the digiscope rig, weighed less than their body and lens…even if they were shooting off-hand. One gentleman carried a full sized tripod and a gimbal head on every outing. That is real dedication. 🙂

Blue-crowned Motmot, Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
Blue-crowned Motmot, Lodge at Pico Bonito. Digiscoped with the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL

The first challenge in the tropics is always going to be light. My DSLR toting friends were shooting at ISO 6400 most of the time in the rain-forest, and I was pushing ISO 3200 for most shots. Even-so I had to dial the shutter speed down from my usual 1/640th of a second to 1/250th or even 1/160th to get enough light for a decent exposure. The Image Stabilization on the Sony HX400V handled the slower shutter speeds well, but detail at ISO 3200 suffered. I got the shots, but not always totally what I might have wanted. The tropics push any camera to its absolute limits.

To complicate matters, most P&S super-zooms have a maximum aperture of between f6.3 and f6.7 at the telephoto end…a far cry from a Canon 400mm f2.8 or even the 400mm f4. However, that is f6.x at 1200mm or greater equivalent. If you zoom back to 400mm the aperture will be not much different than the fixed Canon lens. It is always a trade off when it comes to cameras.

Boat-billed Heron, Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Sony HX400V at ISO 2500 at 1/160th second.
Boat-billed Heron, Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Sony HX400V at ISO 2500 at 1/160th second.

For the Point and Shoot photographer I recommend my standard wildlife settings: shutter preferred, Auto ISO (with the upper limit set as high as possible). Even so, at least in rain and cloud-forest, you will find yourself using slower shutter speeds than you are comfortable with…but the Image Stabilization on most Point and Shoot super-zooms is up to the challenge. On the Sony, changing shutter speed in shutter preferred on the fly is super-easy…you simply spin the wheel under your thumb…your mileage with other brands may differ. 🙂

I regret that I did not try the High Sensitivity modes on the Sony, which would have given me ISO 6400-12800 in a pinch. It might have made a difference. I will certainly give it a try on future trips to the tropics.

Blue-crowned Motmot. Sony HX400V. ISO 3200 @ 1/250th @ f6.3. Pushed to the limits
Blue-crowned Motmot. Sony HX400V. ISO 3200 @ 1/250th @ f6.3. Pushed to the limits.

Focus is a whole other issue. Point and Shoot cameras use Contrast Detection Auto Focus, which is slower and less precise than the Phase Detection Auto Focus on full sized DSLRs. It also requires more light to work effectively. You will certainly want your focus area set to the smallest possible square in the center of the field, so that you have a chance to focus on the bird through the dense foliage.

Even then, I found myself resorting to Dynamic Focus Assist on the Sony HX400V much more often than ever before. The Sony focus system allows you to maintain auto focus, and fine-tune it using the focus ring around the lens barrel, just as you would focus a manual focus lens. It is, without a doubt, the easiest manual override auto focus of any P&S camera on the market, and I certainly appreciated it by the end of my time in Honduras. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a higher resolution Electronic View Finder so I could have seen when the bird was in focus more easily.

Almost all P&S super-zooms today have some kind of manual override on the auto focus…or straight up manual focus…but none are as quick, easy, and intuitive as the Sony system. Still, if you are headed for the tropics, dust off your manual and find out how to manually focus your camera. 🙂

Black-faced Grosbeak, Sony HX400V. Tricky focus requires manual override.
Black-faced Grosbeak, Sony HX400V. Tricky focus requires manual override.

For all the difficulty in focusing, however, I am pretty sure I got as many sharply focused images as my DSLR friends. Birds under the canopy will generally sit still long enough to find focus.

Of course, there are areas in the tropics that have lots of light! We visited the Cuero y Salada Wildlife Refuge at the junction of two mangrove lined rivers near the Caribbean coast. To get there we rode a “banana train”…a narrow guage, open car, toy train that was used in the early 1900s to transport bananas from the plantation near the coast, 9 km inland to the railhead. Despite the fact that there were local paying passengers on the train, we stopped often for birds along the way.

Even along the river we found some birds in good light. And, with enough light, the super-zoom P&S always performs well. These shots are satisfying, especially since they were taken hand-held from a boat.

In the dry forest, and in the inland valleys, the super-zoom gave me the reach to capture birds from the bus on the road, and from respectable distances in the forest…as well of macros of some interesting butterflies.

And of course, at the wide end the P&S super-zoom captures the grand tropical landscape.

Sports Mode, or tracking auto focus, even makes hummingbirds at feeders and perched possible.

Just for sake of interest I will share one more digiscoped image, again taken with the Canon S120 P&S through the 30x eyepiece on the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL spotting scope, using the Digidapter for ZEISS and the MeFoto Carbon Fiber Roadtrip tripod. This is a particularly difficult shot due to the low light and the foliage between me and bird.

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, digiscoped at ISO 3200.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, digiscoped at ISO 3200.

So, how does the P&S super-zoom fair when compared to a full scale DSLR/Long lens rig in the tropics. My good friend Diane Porter was shooting beside me most of the trip, with her Canon 7D Mk2 and the 100-400mm Canon IS Zoom. She has kindly allowed me to borrow a few of her shots for comparison. Of course, her shots had to be heavily cropped to equal the scale of the 1200mm equivalent zoom on the Sony. It is a testimony to the quality of the Canon 7D Mk2 that the images hold up so well to heavy cropping.

You will notice that the better the light, the closer the Sony P&S comes to the full sized rig. The first comparison is not totally fair to the Sony, as I used the full 2x Clear Image zoom for the equivalent of 2400mms of reach. Digital zoom (while the Sony system is among the best), will never equal the quality of optical zoom.

I will give you one more comparison. This time it is a digiscoped Trogon, digiscoped at the short end of the digiscoping range…and again at 3200 ISO to cope with the low light levels under the rain-forest canopy.

(Just for fun, here is Diane and her rig, playing host some kind of whiptail lizard.)

Diane Porter and a visitor. This is a trick you can not do with a P&S.
Diane Porter and a visitor. This is a trick you can not do with a P&S.

Photography is about choices as much as anything. When we choose the compact ease and flexibility of a Point and Shoot super-zoom over the more conventional DSLR/long lens rig, we know that we will sacrifice some image quality. Conditions in the tropics test the limits of any camera and lens, but all in all I will still be packing my P&S super-zoom on my next tropical adventure!

 

 

 

 

 

Sports Mode/Follow Focus for Active Wildlife

Reddish Egret, Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island NWR, FL
Reddish Egret, Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island NWR, FL

 

One of the limitations of Point and Shoot cameras, even advanced Point and Shoot cameras like the super-zooms, is that they use a simpler, and less effective, auto focus sensor system than full fledged DSLRs. This matters not at all when you are shooting landscapes…and seldom when you are shooting people, even active people at parties, etc…but it can matter a lot when shooting wildlife…especially active wildlife.

Nothing is more active than a feeding Reddish Egret. I have tried to catch the wing-thing the Reddish Egret does periodically as it dances and prances about feeding…but this is one time when my choice of camera makes photographic life more difficult. The bird is literally all over the place…near and far…running to the left…hopping back to the right…and it seems impossible to predict when it will raise its wings to shadow the water so it can see its target fish. And the whole wing thing takes only a second. Done and gone.

Recent generations of super-zooms, however, have borrowed the “follow focus” mode from their larger cousins. Follow focus, or focus tracking, allows you to lock focus on a moving subject in the frame, and then the camera will track that subject and keep it in focus. On some superzooms, putting the camera in Sports Mode automatically activates tracking auto focus, and sets the focus programming to favor moving subjects.

You might remember that I recommend Sports Mode for birds in flight, but I had the opportunity to put Sports Mode and tracking auto focus to the test with a few cooperative Reddish Egrets along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is worth noting that if tracking auto focus is going to work anywhere…it will work best in the brilliant winter sun of Florida.

And work it did. Unlike some P&S superzooms, with the Sony HX400V it is not even necessary to half press the shutter release. The camera automatically locks focus on any moving subject when it is centered in the finder, and then all you have to do is keep the subject roughly centered. The camera does the rest, and you are focused and ready when the action you want to capture happens.  Combined with the Sony’s fast 10 frames per second continuous mode, I was able to capture many wing-things, and several dramatic sequences of the Egret striking at fish. I was even able to catch the Egret in mid-hop. 🙂

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Mid-hop. Reddish Egret. Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island NWR, FL
Mid-hop. Reddish Egret. Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island NWR, FL

Some superzooms do not have a Sports Mode, or on some Sports Mode might work differently. If so, look for the Tracking Auto Focus, or Follow Focus under the auto-focus settings in your menu.

Find some active wildlife and give it a try. I think you will like it. 🙂

 

 

Point and Shoot: reality “reproduced” or reality “rendered”?

Anhinga wing. Florida. Sony HX400V

Photo geek discussions of image quality often revolve around the presence or absence of artifacts in the image when viewed at high resolution and large sizes. The theory among serious photographers seems to be that a good digital image should have very few visible artifacts, no matter how big you blow it up.

Digital artifacts come in several flavors. One of the more obvious ones is color, tone, and detail smearing, often referred to as the water-color-effect. In areas of the image with very fine visible detail the colors tend to run together in a muddy mix, and fine detail looks smeared as though a wet brush had been dragged across it. This is especially evident in grass at distance and at the edges of the frame and foliage. Then there is postering. Areas of smooth tone, like the human face, clothing, or the sky take on a poster like look, with visible edges between two areas of tone that should blend into each other. Another is blocking, where jpeg compression creates a pattern of tiny blocks instead of smooth color gradations. This is generally accompanied by the jaggies…another jpeg compression artifact, that produces a step like line where a smooth curve should be. Finally there is an artifact called over sharpening, which produces hard edges and even halos (bright lines) along the edges of objects in the image, as well as contributing to the postering effect.

In addition, small sensor cameras can suffer from mottling and color noise in smooth tone areas…especially in the sky. This produces a blotchy, freckled look where there should be a smooth expanse of blue. Color noise is especially easy to see in dark areas of the image. There might be little rods of red, green, and blue scattered in the shadows.

Generally speaking, none of these artifacts can been seen at normal viewing size or in prints under 8×10, though in an image where they are very present, the effect can be general loss of subtlety. People might say the photographic image looks more like a painting than a photograph. Generally though, you have to view the image blown up to nearly full resolution on a good high resolution monitor or LDC panel to see the artifacts. They can also show up clearly in large prints made from infected files.

This image from an older Point and Shoot superzoom shows most of the painterly artifacts discussed above.

It is a pretty standard criticism of Point and Shoot cameras and sensors that the images have too many artifacts. Some photographers will argue that the built in processing engine in any camera that saves the images only as jpeg files will produce an unacceptable level of artifacts…since many of them come from jpeg compression, and less than subtle in-camera processing. This is why P&Ss that record images in the RAW format (unprocessed) are generally considered higher quality than cameras that do not.

There is a name for those photo geeks who are really hung up on the artifacts issue. They are called pixel peepers (since they blow images up until they can see the individual pixels) by those with a more relaxed attitude. Of course I am pretty sure the pixel peepers consider the rest of us to be something less than serious about our image quality.

I will admit to having gone through my pixel peeping phase. Only a few years ago, some P&S cameras had such complex and such obvious artifacts that it was very easy to be disappointed with the results for anything but casual use. The images really did look like bad paintings at anything bigger than your standard laptop screen size.

Recently though I have come to suspect that there is more to this artifacting issue than might be immediately apparent.  I began to wonder if the artifacts in the best of today’s Point and Shoot cameras might be intentional…the result of the aesthetic engineers attempts to get the best performance out of the tiny sensors in Point and Shoot cameras.

Part of my suspicion is fueled by the undeniable fact that the image quality of Point and Shoot cameras, at least when images are viewed at reasonable sizes, has improved steadily over the past few years…yet the pixel level artifacts remain.

And part of my suspicion is fueled by the realization that all digital images are in fact closer to paintings than to conventional photographs. All digital images are renderings of reality, not reproductions.

I believe what we are observing in recent Point and Shoot camera generations is that the computing power and the sophistication of the processing engines (software) built into today’s cameras has gotten to the point where the jpeg renderings of the files for display are simply very, very good…so good they consistently fool the human eye into seeing more detail and more subtle color that is actually in the file.

For years, the stated purpose, or at least the underlying assumption, behind digital photography as been to improve the technology so that the camera can accurately capture, or record, the full range of light and dark, every subtle shade of color, and finest detail of every texture that our eye can see in the world around us. And we have made great progress toward that goal.

However, the truth is that no matter how accurate our recording, to be of use, the data that we capture has to be displayed using a pattern of tiny glowing bits on a monitor or LCD panel, or transformed into a pattern of ink dots on paper that can be viewed by reflected light. The resolution and color depth of displays continues to improve, and printers to evolve, but we have to remember that, no matter what the camera records, we do not have an image until it is rendered for display.

And, of course, someone has to decide how the raw data is going to be translated into a file that will drive a display or printer. Most professional and many advanced amateur photographers want to be the one to make the decisions…admittedly subjective, aesthetic decisions…on how that translation is going to happen. They work with RAW files and process them at the full resolution and color depth the sensor provides, and only translate them for display or printing at the last possible moment.

But the fact is, of course, that no sensor made today can capture what the eye sees, and no display technology can display it. Therefore part of the process of translation is always to adjust the data captured to compensate for the limits of the sensor and then tailor that data to the limits of the display technology available. All with the goal, of course, of displaying what the eye saw, or at least what the mind (heart) intended.

That is what I have come to call rendering the image. All digital images today are rendered for display, in much the same way we understand that a painter renders the scene before his/her eyes or in his/her mind. We might use digital technology, but our photographs are as much paintings as the work of any impressionist, and actually use a very similar theory of imaging…breaking the image down into bits of color and pattern, and reassembling bits and patterns of color to represent what we saw. That is the essence, as I understand it, of impressionistic painting.

When the aesthetic engineers at the today’s camera companies are faced with getting the most pleasing results out of a tiny sensor, they have to make decisions based on how the image will be displayed. Knowing the likely limits of resolution and size of the display, and the likelihood that the display will be digital itself, they have opted to program the camera to render the image for apparent detail and smooth tones at those sizes.

This requires a different approach to rendering than you might use in an idealized large sensor camera.

A really good painting produces the illusion of much more detail than is actually there. Walk up close to any painting and see how quickly the image dissolves into artifacts…how close do you have to be, in fact, to see the individual brush strokes and blobs of paint? Or to see that what looked like grass in all its glory was actually a swath of green paint with some clever strokes of yellow and black that tricked the eye into seeing the detail that is not there? How close do you have to be to see that the fully formed human face that you appreciated from 6 feet is actually a single brush stroke with a suggestion of eyes and mouth dabbed in?

Okay, so that is an extreme example…but I believe it captures the essence of the quality we are seeing in today’s best Point and Shoot cameras…especially in the jpeg files the cameras are designed to produce.

Perhaps the aesthetic engineers at Sony, to pick a company often criticized for their artifacty images, are not attempting to produce a smooth toned, finely detailed reproduction of the world through the lens, so much as they are attempting to render an image that, when viewed or printed at reasonable sizes, produces a satisfying impression of fine detail and smooth tone.

Admittedly, if you pixel peep, the artifacts are still visible, just as you can see the brush strokes and blobs of paint in a painting if you get too close, but with each generation of Sony Point and Shoot cameras, with increasing pixel count and processing power…as well as increased software sophistication…the rendering of reality has gotten finer, more detailed, more subtle…more satisfying.

I do not believe there is any other way to get satisfying performance out of a small sensor. We know, in selecting a Point and Shoot superzoom that we are making a compromise based on flexibility and compactness. No other camera can offer us an equivalent range in such a tiny package. That is the attraction. To get that means a small sensor…and satisfying image quality at reasonable viewing sizes from a small sensor requires an impressionistic rendering of the image. That is just a fact of life.

In fact, it is pretty miraculous, and evidence of great skill and dedication on the part of the artist-engineers, that a tiny 20mp sensor and a tiny computer in the camera can render such a high quality image, in a compressed format like jpeg, that allows easy, fast file movement.

At the other extreme, at the true professional end of the photographic spectrum, we are seeing more and more high pixel count full frame sensor cameras…and more and more high resolution displays and printers. And ever increasing power in the desktop and laptop computers we use (even in tablets these days) to process the high resolution RAW files. That is the other way to produce satisfying renderings of reality…the only way if you are going to display images on 4D and higher resolution displays and at print sizes, say over 24 inches. But even with the rich clean data of a big sensor, some kind of intelligent, intentional rendering of the image for display will always be required, whether it is done in-camera or after the fact.

Need visuals?

Green Heron at screen resolution. Sony HX400V
Green Heron at screen resolution. Sony HX400V

 

Detail at approximately 1 to 1.
Detail at approximately 1 to 1.

 

 

Detail at approximately 4 to 1.
Detail at approximately 4 to 1.

In the images above we have an example of pixel peeping. The top image is presented at screen resolution. By clicking on it you can view it at its full uploaded resolution of 2000×1500 pixels. You will see at anything up to that size (and considerably larger actually) the image looks great…excellent rendition of detail and color…certainly very satisfying. Until recently an HD computer monitor or LCD screen was 1900 pixels across, so this image would fill the screen. It would make a 10×8 inch print at 200 dpi…excellent quality.

The next image shows a small segment of the first blown up so that you can see each pixel. That would be the equivalent of full screen view on a monitor with a resolution of 5184×3888 (twice the resolution of highest resolution LCDs currently in production), or a print 25 inches wide. At that size the artifacts are just beginning to show. Still, from anything more than a foot away, the image on an HD screen or the 25 inch print would look amazingly detailed, smooth, and satisfying.

The final image is an even smaller segment of the first, now blown up to 4 to 1…four times full resolution. At this scale the artifacts are obvious…but it is the equivalent of a print 100 inches wide! Even at that scale, from more than 4 or 5 feet viewing distance, the image would still look almost as good as it does on at screen resolution. Don’t believe me. Next time you are in an airport, take a really close look at one of those wall sized images. 🙂

So, bottom line. The artifacts you see in Point and Shoot images when you pixel peep are necessary to the pleasing effect of the images viewed at normal viewing sizes. If you have opted for the convenience, the flexibility, the compactness of a Point and Shoot superzoom…just enjoy the results it is designed to produce. Do not pixel peep. The artifacts you do not see can not hurt you…and you will get full enjoyment out of the images you bring back…images that you would be unlikely to get with any other camera!

Backgrounding. P&S Technique

I will admit to not being nearly as sensitive to background in my wildlife and nature shots as I should be. On the other hand, there are always two ways to become known for your photography. 1) you can work very carefully, and develop great skill in waiting for exactly the right light and working the angles for the perfect background on every shot you take…or 2) you can shoot a lot…all the time…every time you get any kind of chance at all…and then be very selective in what you show to other people 🙂 Either method works…and most honest photographers will tell you that their success rests on a combination of the two. It is important to be able to take an exceptional photograph when the opportunity comes your way…and to be able, within the limits of what nature offers, to create that opportunity when ever you can…but it is just as important to shoot all the time, to shoot a lot, a lot…and to learn to recognize the exceptional shot when you come to process it.

Either way, background has to figure into your calculations. By background I mean whatever is behind your subject…or whatever fills the space in the frame not occupied by the focus of your attention. It if it a picture of a bird, it is everything that is not the bird. If it is a picture of person or an elk, it is everything that is not person or elk. Etc.

Take the two images that lead the post here. It is the same Green Heron, taken from the same boardwalk…Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center at Everglades National Park…moments apart. The difference is that I re-positioned myself and my camera a few feet down the boardwalk for the second shot in order to get a less cluttered background. I wish I could say it was a conscious choice…but honestly, I was just experimenting with different angles, and noticed the different effect of the background only while processing the images.

And the difference here is not as dramatic as it might have been. There are things I like about both images.

But take this comparison.

Here I am much less ambivalent about which is the better photo. I far prefer the contrasting, uncluttered background of the second shot. The second shot also displays an effect referred to, in photographic circles, as bokeh. Bokeh is the Japanese term that is used to describe the visual structure of the out of focus portions of an image. We say an image has nice bokeh when the out of focus background is pleasing to the eye. Pleasing to the eye, of course, is a judgement call, but there seems to be quite a bit of consistency in the way the term bokeh is used…which leads me to believe that we humans tend to agree, for the most part, on what kind of background is pleasing. An out of focus background that shows some abstract pattern, but not so much as to be distracting, seems to get the most consistent praise.

These are two very similar images taken of the same species of bird miles apart. One is from the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palms, the other is from Shark Valley, both in Everglades National Park. The difference between them is subtle…but it definitely hands on the background.

One more really obvious example, though in this case I could have done nothing about the background in either image. I was shooting from the car for the first image, across the passenger, and the bird was on the ground, so my options were limited. The second bird was simply perfectly posed on a post beside West Road in Shark Valley and sat there while I stopped my bike and got off a short burst of images, before flying away. There was no chance to reframe in either case.

Obviously, if you have a choice, maneuvering for a less cluttered background should be part of your photographic habit. A few steps right or left, or a shift in angle up or down…or both…is often all it takes. This is the same spider at Shark Valley, from just a slightly different angle.

Snowy Egret, Shark Valley, Everglades NP
Snowy Egret, Shark Valley, Everglades NP

 

Sometimes it is totally the background that makes the shot, as in this image of a Snowy Egret at Shark Valley. Until I pressed the shutter and reviewed the image, I could not see the pattern that the light on the moving water made in the background, and it did not really come up until processing in Lightroom. But I have to tell you I was really happy to see it there!

The background effect is just one more thing to think about while shooting and while processing…but giving it the attention it deserves will improve your images and repay the effort. Eventually someone is going to say “nice bokeh” when you show them a shot (if you have any photo-geeks among your friends at all), and you will be able to say, “Yes…I worked hard to get that!” or, at the very least, “Thank you!”

Florida White, Eco Pond, Everglades NP.
Florida White, Eco Pond, Everglades NP.

 

 

BIF with a Point & Shoot!

Three Sanhill Cranes in flight. Bosque del Apache NWR

Birds in flight are such a challenging photographic subject that the category of images has its own internet acronym: BIF. Go to any of the camera forums (like those on dpreview.com) and you will see periodic discussion of the challenges and techniques of BIF photography. Mostly the challenges.

Standard BIF rig. Photo from Borrowlenses.com

Until very recently BIF was the sole domain of the long lens, DSLR photographer, generally shooting off a heavy duty tripod with a gimbal head (one of those heads that suspends the lens from above and allows free motion up and down and side to side for panning and following BIFs). Only a pro level DSLR had the focus speed to catch BIFs and most BIF photographers shot with 400-600mm lenses to fill the frame.

And they practiced, almost to the point of specialization, to develop the panning and following skills needed. I see photos of BIFs that just leave me speechless…they are that good, and that amazing.

Of course, that has never stopped me from attempting BIFs with my chosen Point and Shoot super-zoom cameras. Until a generation ago (camera generation…about 2 years) the results were spotty at best. I got an occasional keeper on a day and in a place where there were lots of birds in the air and I had lots of time to practice. Rookeries. National Wildlife Refuges that draw geese, ducks, and cranes. Etc. But it was more by chance and persistence than it was by skill when I came home with anything I wanted to share.

Canon SX50HS in Sports Mode

However, with the advent of the Canon SX50HS and its effective Sports Mode, suddenly BIFs with a Point & Shoot became a lot more possible and a lot more fun. Sports Mode on the SX50HS was programmed to lock focus on a moving subject and then to follow focus on that subject while it was still near the center of the frame. Combined with a 3.4 frames per second continuous shooting mode, Sports Mode made it really possible for the first time to get consistent BIF shots without investing in the full DSLR rig above.

In a place like Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge or along the cliffs of Point Cabrillo in San Diego, where there are Snow Geese and Cranes or Pelicans in the air almost continuously, with practice you could pick up a bird and center it far enough out so you could pan smoothly and follow…half press the shutter release to lock focus…and then fire off a burst when the bird was near filling the frame…continuing to pan with the bird for best effect. You were half-blind once your pressed the shutter, since the viewfinder did not refresh fast enough to really follow the bird…but it could, with practice, be done. 🙂

Pelican off the Tide Pools at Point Cabrillo in San Diego. SX50HS in Sports Mode.

There was a good deal of debate on the forums (not helped by inconsistencies in the Canon documentation) about whether Sports Mode did in fact follow focus once you pressed the shutter release to start your burst. I was, and remain, in the “yes it does” camp, and have results to prove it, at least to me. The doubters have their demonstration sequences as well.

However it works, the Sports mode on the SX50HS (and I assume on the SX60HS as well), makes BIF fairly easy, given the right birds and a bit of patience and persistence.

I have been waiting for my yearly visit to Bosque del Apache NWR to really give the Sony HX400V Sports Mode a fair trial.

The Sony works very much like the Canon. There is a large rectangular focus frame in the center of the view. The Sony auto-focuses on whatever is nearest the center of that frame using continuous auto focus. When you half press the shutter release it locks on the subject, and then follows focus on that subject as it moves within the frame or as you pan with the motion.

The HX400V has two continuous shooting modes, and you can use either in Sports Mode. I have been using high speed burst which is 10 frames per second for 10 frames. It is possible to shoot a shorter burst than 10 frames, but you have to be really light on the shutter release. The finder flashes while shooting the 10 frames, but you get a pretty much continuous look at your subject to aid in panning.

Tandem Snow Geese. Sony HX400V in Sports Mode

In practice, I generally had to zoom the Canon SX50HS out to 600mm equivalent field of view to get consistent BIFs. On the Sony HX400V I can use the full 1200mm reach. It is that much easier to use. 🙂 (But then it is really two generations newer than the SX50HS.)

Three at a time. Sony HX400V

These shots are not perfect. If you blow them up to full resolution on the computer (pixel peeping) you see some artifacts, but at reasonable viewing and printing sizes they are simply very satisfying. And so easy!

Sports Mode on the Sony HX400V completely takes over control of the camera, so if you are not the trusting type, in might not suit you. The only thing you can change is the speed of continuous shooting. However, even in difficult light, Sports Mode on the Sony does the job.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese against the sunset.
Landing in the dawn light
Cranes on a burning sky.

Of course, the better the light, the better the results.

Snow Geese against the Mountains to the West of the refuge.
Solo Snow Goose
Cranes at 1200mm equivalent field of view.

Remember: patience and persistence. Take a lot of images. Try, try, and try again. And don’t grieve the close shots…the near misses…the not quite, but close stuff you have to delete from the card. Just keep shooting. Eventually you will get the shots you want.

And don’t try BIFs, at least at first, unless you have a lot of birds to practice on…even if it is only gulls at the local landfill. Even with the aid of the excellent Sports Modes on today’s Point and Shoot super-zooms, it takes practice!

My last image here was submitted to the Canon Print Challenge on Saturday at Bosque del Apache, along with many images from conventional long-lens, DSLR, tripod wielding photographers…and it won! At the end of the competition the Canon folks made me a 13×17 inch exhibition print on art paper…and it looks great! So don’t let anyone tell you you can’t, or should not even try to, shoot BIFs with a Point and Shoot. It can be done. Easier with each generation. 🙂

Puddle Ducks Away! Sony HX400V in Sports Mode.

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Point and Shoot Depth of Field

Tricolored Heron and Black-necked Stilts. Edinburg Scenic Wetlands World Birding Center, Edinburg TX

My DSLR, long lens, tripod totting, friend Paul and I spent several days photographing side by side in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. He shoots, much of the time, with his massive 400mm, f2.8 Canon Image Stabilized lens mounted on his 5D full frame DSLR and a heavy-duty carbon fiber tripod. It is a brilliant lens and a very capable camera, and he gets stunning results. However he found a few things to envy in my long zoom Point and Shoot rig (I was shooting with the Sony HX400V, 50x, 20mp camera.)

Of course I was shooting my first images while he was still setting up his tripod, and, of course, I had 4 times the reach he had…with 1200mm equivalent field of view. And of course, as the days wore on it became obvious which of us was carrying 8 pounds of lens…close to 12 pounds total equipment, and which could tuck his whole rig into a small bag at his waist. 🙂

But the thing Paul kept coming back to when we looked at our images later in the day was how much depth of field the small sensor camera gives you when compared to his full sized sensor…and most of the time he was comparing his depth at 400mm and mine at 1200mm. By depth of field, if you are not familiar with the term, I mean how much of the image, from foreground to background, is apparently in focus and sharp. For birds, wildlife, and macro work the depth of field can be critical, especially at the longer focal lengths needed to fill the frame. It is especially critical when shooting a group of birds (or other critters) as in the leading photo here. Paul was not able to get the Tricolored Heron in the foreground in focus at the same time as the Black-necked Stilts in the background, even if he stopped his 400mm lens down to f5.6 or so (reducing the aperture increases depth of field). As you see, even at 1200mm equivalent field of view, the Sony managed to get all the birds in relatively good focus.

For comparison here is one of Paul’s shots with his 400mm plus 1.4x extender for 560mm. He stopped down to f10 to improve depth, and was shooting at less than half the equivalent focal length of the Sony P&S, but still did not manage to get the same group of birds in focus.

Canon 5D with 400mm plus 1.4x telextender. f10
Canon 5D with 400mm plus 1.4x telextender. f10

Here is another example: the Little Blue and the Snowy were separated by about 3-4 feet, yet the Sony managed to get both in focus at 1200mm equivalent and f6.3. Only a Point and Shoot superzoom is able to do that trick 🙂

Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egret

It has to do with sensor size, and the real focal length of Point and Shoot camera lenses. Since the sensor in my Sony is 5.6 times smaller than the sensor in Paul’s Canon 5D, it only takes a 215mm lens to make objects (or subjects) the same size in the image as thew would be with a 1200mm lens on his camera (215×5.6=1200). More practically for comparison, when I set my zoom to 400mm to match Paul’s 400mm Canon lens, my real focal length is only 71mm. He gets the depth of field of a 400mm lens, and, while framing the same group of birds so they look the same size in the image, I get the depth of field of a 71mm lens. That is a dramatic difference. Even at my 1200mm setting (remember 215mm real focal length), I still have twice the depth of field he does with his 400mm lens. That means that even if he crops his image to match mine, I will still have significantly more depth.

Depth of field differences also come into play when shooting close your subject. This shot of a Red Saddlebags Dragonfly from 7 feet at 2400mm equivalent field of view (1200mm optical plus 2x Clear Image zoom on the Sony), would simply not be possible in any single image from a conventional DSLR and lens, unless you shot from a few inches away with a 71mm lens (and even then you would have to crop the image by a factor of 2). And believe me, getting that close to a Red Saddlebag in the field is not easy 🙂

Red Saddlebags 2400mm equivalent from about 7 feet.

Or consider this true macro, taken from about an inch, using the Sony HX400V at about 61mm equivalent field of view. The real focal length of the lens at that zoom is 10.9mm…which on a full frame sensor would be a fish-eye wide angle. I get as much depth of field as I need in any macro setting.

Spider at about 1 inch.

The spider is relatively isolated, but in a macro like the one that follows, depth of field is critical to the effect.

Bee on the Blazing Star

Even when shooting at wild angle, for landscapes, the extra depth of field of the P&S superzoom can be used to good advantage. I enjoy a photograph with a great depth.

Low angle, wide angle, with great depth. 24mm equivalent (real focal length 4.3mm)

It is sometimes argued that the greater depth of field in small sensor Point and Shoots is a disadvantage when you do want to use selective focus…as in some wildlife, some macro, and almost all portrait photography…where you want your subject isolated against an out of focus background for the classic photographic effect.

Portrait at 400mm with a full frame DSLR. Nice separation and excellent bokeh.
Same distance, about 200mm equivalent with P&S

If I had cropped in closer by zooming out to match Paul’s 400mm, the background would have been less sharp, but not as well isolated as the full frame shot. Still, as the macros above demonstrate, subject separation can be achieved even with a P&S.

All in all, I find the extra depth of field of the P&S superzoom to be an advantage for nature photography way more often than it is a disadvantage. It makes both telephotos of wildlife and macros of bugs and flowers easier, and produces great landscape effects. In fact, I am so used to working with generous depth of field that I am pretty sure I would be quite frustrated moving to a full frame system at this point. I love shots like this one of a Common Paraque in the half-light too much. Only a P&S superzoom could produce this result…with so much of the bird in focus at this distance and scale.

Common Paraque. Estero Llano Grande SP World Birding Center, Weslaco TX

So, just one more reason to enjoy Point and Shoot Nature Photography. 🙂

Fear not the darkness…

Yellow=rumped Warbler, Cape May NJ, ISO 1600.
Yellow=rumped Warbler, Cape May NJ, ISO 1600.

When you read the reviews of Point and Shoot cameras, especially the superzooms we favor for bird, wildlife, and nature photography, you are sure to come across comments about their less than stellar low light performance. No digital sensor camera does as well at high ISOs as it does at low ISOs. Digital sensors love light, and the more light, within reason, the better the image quality and the image detail you can expect. And the smaller the sensor, the common wisdom goes, the worse the high ISO, low light, performance you can expect. The tiny senors in the P&S Superzooms can not be expected to equal the performance of APS-C or full frame sensors.

Full sun vs full overcast: ISO 160 ves 1600
Full overcast vs full sun: ISO 1600 ves 160

On the other hand, you will notice that with each new generation of digital sensors, the maximum ISO ratings increase. Full frame cameras will let you set ISO to 5 digits these days…totally unheard of, undrempt of even, ratings back in the days of film. Remember, ISO 800 color slide film (ASA 800 in those days) was revolutionary, and only to be used in emergencies, since its performance…with highly visible grain, limited contrast range, and muted colors…left a lot to be desired. Those were the days when Kodachrome 25 was still the standard for published photos.

Even today’s P&S cameras will reach 3200-6400 ISO, though to listen to the reviewers, anything over ISO 400 on some, and certainly ISO 800 on most, is simply unusable. Same issue: visible noise (the digital equivalent of grain), limited contrast range, and desaturated colors. However, each new generation of P&S cameras also has improved noise reduction built into the jpeg processing engines. Yet the common advice is still to turn it off if you can…or to shoot in RAW (again if you can)…and do any noise reduction in software after the fact. The Image Quality issues (watercolor effects and detail smearing) that are often claimed for P&S superzooms are often attributed to “overly aggressive noise reduction.”

Still, if you shoot wildlife…especially active birds…in anything but full sunlight, you sometimes find yourself making the hard choice between higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds. Nothing will destroy image detail quicker than camera or subject motion, so you pretty much have to keep the shutter speed up, and let the ISO got where it needs to.  I do not like to shoot birds and wildlife at anything under 1/500th of a second, even with today’s excellent optical image stabilization. Even if the camera does not move, the critter is likely too. 🙁

On my latest photo trip to Cape May, New Jersey, for the Autumn Bird Festival, the days ranged from rain and overcast to full sun. If I wanted to shoot birds it was necessary to let the camera do its ISO thing, using the full range available to me. The first two days I still had not figured out how to set the camera so that it was not limited to ISO 1600 in Auto ISO, so that limited me even more. I did eventually figure out how to let the IsO ride all the way up to 3200.

Reflecting on the results, and my efforts around home over the past weeks and since returning from Cape May, I have come to a pretty startling conclusion. At least with the superzoom I am using (Sony HX400V), the high ISO results were not all that bad…in fact…they were very good…especially when you consider that I could not have gotten the images any other way. When choosing between some kind of pretty good okay image and no image at all…well, that is an easy choice for me. 🙂

The first thing I learned is that there is a lot of detail in underexposed images. While the camera was limiting me to ISO 1600, many of my bird and wildlife shots were seriously underexposed…by several stops. Yet, when taken into Lighroom, I was able to bring them up to quite acceptable levels and produce images that were satisfying, if not spectacular…and you might even consider them spectacular if you take into account the conditions they were taken under.

Consider this Red Squirrel from Laudholm Farm…taken before I left for Cape May. It was so dark in the under the apple trees and in the brush that I pushed the shutter speed all the way down to 1/160th at ISO 1600, stretching both the Image Stabilization of the camera, and the good will of the squirrel to the max…and the image was still several stops underexposed.

underexposed at 1/160th @ ISO 1600, processed in Lightroom
underexposed at 1/160th @ ISO 1600, processed in Lightroom

As you see, while not a great image, it is hard to tell the processed result was ever that underexposed. Color is pretty good. Detail is satisfying. Both noise and digital artifacts are visible in the finished result, but only if you view the image at full resolution. At normal screen sizes it looks pretty good okay! And…of course…I could not have done any better with any camera I could have been carrying…a full frame DSLR would have wanted even more light…pushing the ISO higher and the shutter speed lower…and no lens I could have hand-held…no…no lens I could have used even on a tripod…would have equaled the 1200mm reach of the Sony HX400V. I would have had to crop heavily to achieve this image scale. Given that, I am convinced that this image is better than I would have gotten with any other camera. You want more proof…

Deer at 1600 ISO. Well underexposed and brought up in Lightroom.
Deer at 1600 ISO. Well underexposed and brought up in Lightroom.

 

 

Common Yellow-throat, again underexposed at ISO 1600.
Common Yellow-throat, again underexposed at ISO 1600.

Again, not great shots, but satisfying, considering any reasonable alternative. 🙂

When I did figure out how to set Auto ISO for the full 3200 range on the HX400V, I was even more surprised by the results! The images, of course, required much less lightening in post-process, and maintained good color saturation, satisfying detail, and very few visible artifacts in the backgrounds (a problem area for any high ISO shot). And this is straight from the camera, with only my standard one click preset Lightroom processing. I did not, at first, even apply any extra noise reduction in Lightroom…though I did find that some slight Luminance NR, with detail emphasis, did produce an even more satisfying result.

It is even possible to crop an ISO 3200 image from the Sony HX400V and get acceptable results…pretty good okay results! This chipper is proof enough for me. In-camera Noise Reduction set to standard. Sharpening to -1. Saturation to +1. My standard one click processing in Lightroom with some added NR.

ISO 3200.
ISO 3200. Cropped.
ISO 3200. Cropped.
ISO 3200. Cropped.

So folks, here is my conclusion. Unless you are looking for magazine quality publication images…if, in other words, your main interest is sharing on the web and the occasional print for the wall or for a gift…you have no reason, with the latest crop of P&S superzooms, to fear the dark. Go boldly. Set your ISO high and bring back satisfying images of the birds and wildlife you encounter in less than ideal light…images you would be very unlikely to get with any other camera.

Do not fear the dark…