Category Archives: Software

Making the most of what you’ve got…

As winter sets in, I find that the opportunities to take photos get harder and harder to find.  The hours of daylight are shorter, and tend to be while I’m at work – and the weather conditions and lighting all get worse.  As I find it impractical to carry bulky camera equipment with me everywhere, instead, I try to carry a small compact camera with me. I can then grab a few minutes taking photos if I find a nice scene or conditions are good.

At the same time, I also like setting myself little challenges, to see how far I can push the equipment I’m using, trying to get the best from the situation with simple gear.

Recently, I came out of work and I was walking near St Paul’s cathedral in London. I spotted an opportunity to shoot the cathedral (a very over-photographed building) through an archway, to form a nice “frame within a frame”.  The camera I had on me was my ten year old Casio Exilim EX-Z120, which I recently bought second hand for £6.

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought for £6.

The camera itself is nothing special (though I am rather fond of it, because it has a view finder, which comes in handy on bright days, and takes pretty decent “snaps” for most casual purposes).  It is pretty limited, though, in terms of its metering capabilities, low light response and dynamic range.  It’s therefore a challenge to coax the best out of it that you can.  Here is the final shot, which I will then give a bit of background to:

St Paul's from 25 Cannon Street
St Paul’s from 25 Cannon Street

Overall, I am quite pleased with the result, but to get the photo to this state required a fair amount of post-processing (digital manipulation).

The shot, as taken, looked like this:

St Paul's unedited

You can see from the image, that the camera was not able to expose well for the darker sections of the image and the sky at the same time, lacking the dynamic range to do so.  The image also struggles because the parallel lines of the arch converge.  This could not be avoided in-camera, because it was not possible to stand any further back (my back was against the wall). I had to look up to frame the image.  Sure, it would be possible, with an expensive tilt-shift lens on a DSLR, but that would have been very impractical – so you have to rely on software, such as Photoshop elements to correct the so-called “barrel distortion” in the final image.

Similarly, the original needed quite a lot of levels adjustment to bring up the dark shadows of the early evening, and lastly it needed the sky restoring to it’ blue glory.  The sky was shot at the same time, in the same place, but correctly exposed for the sky only.  With multiple exposures, it would be possible to achieve the same or a similar effect using HDR compositing.  In my case, I simply cropped a square of sky and dropped it into the original image as a new layer and used the “darken” tool in Photoshop elements.  While some may view this kind of manipulation as cheating – all I was doing was restoring what I could see with my own eyes, but the camera was not capable of capturing directly.

Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you’ve got!

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Mobile Macro Madness (Part 2)

I thought it might be worth returning to macro again immediately, having started touching on the subject yesterday.

When writing yesterday, I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras such as SLRs / DSLRs / CSCs or bridge cameras.  I thought, since this is a budget blog, I should return to the more accessible end of the market, using a mobile phone or cheap compact.  In both cases, many have macro modes which allow you to get surprisingly close to small subjects.

“I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras”

Here comes the science bit…  I have included this under the title “Macro” because it is generally used to refer to close-up photography. Strictly speaking, though, the term macro isn’t right for most mobile phones or compact cameras, but it is the technical difference which gives these cameras some interesting properties.

Macro: A technical definition. – The ratio of the subject’s size on the film or sensor plane to its actual size is known as the reproduction ratio – macro normally describes reproduction ratios greater than 1:1.

So – now we’ve got this out of the way, why are mobile phones not macro? And what difference does it make?

Well, if you’re old enough to really remember 35mm film, you’ll know it was called this because each shot was taken on a 35mm wide piece of film. This is the same size as the sensor in expensive DSLRs.  So, for a photo of a 20mm long insect to fill roughly two thirds of a photo, you would have needed a 1:1 (macro) reproduction.

Your mobile phone, though, will have a sensor which is considerably smaller, typically 1/3 inch, which is just 8.5mm across.  This changes the reproduction ration from roughly 1:1 to 4:1.  Don’t worry too much about the numbers themselves, but the point is that the insect you’re trying to shoot is now larger than the sensor you’re shooting it with, rather than the other way around.

Now, this reproduction ratio doesn’t mean you will actually be able to focus on something at very close distances (so you may struggle to shoot an insect which fills your whole frame, without some sort of adapter), but it will drastically increase the depth of field which can be achieved at the shortest distances your phone can focus at.

Here is an example, shot using my mobile phone, where you can see that nearly all of the flowers in the photo are in fairly sharp focus:

Honey Bee
A honey bee, shot with a Nokia Lumia 800.

This increased depth of field is, in my opinion, generally a bad thing in macro photography, where you often want to remove distracting backgrounds with a tasteful blur.  However, it does have some interesting applications, and you can have a lot of fun with them.

One of the great things about using a mobile phone is that you can often achieve greater depth of field from close-up of objects that otherwise would be impossible to keep in sharp focus when shooting at a short distance.  This might be useful when shooting models, dolls houses, chess boards, or other miniature environments or landscapes.  This can create some great fun opportunities to create some fun composite images.  (See my articles on software such as PhotoScape or GIMP for some free applications to do this).

Fungi under a tree
Fungi under a tree, shot from a few inches away using a mobile phone but providing a wide depth of field.

And the same shot after playing around with it in some software:

...and a fun guy under the fungi
…and a fun guy under the fungi

Software for the more advanced user

“a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP”

Yesterday, in my post “The hard truth about software“, I highlighted PhotoScape as a good piece of free software which will meet the needs of most budding photographers.  It is intuitive and simple to use, but it has its limitations.  Today, I want to highlight another good free option, which is a more serious contender as a competitor to Adobe’s more expensive options – the unfortunately named GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program).

GIMP is a much more complex program than PhotoScape, and as such it can be a little bit harder to find your way around.  It has a number of features which are comparable to Adobe’s Photoshop suite, such as the ability to use layers, to manipulate sections of the image selectively using lasso tools and to carry out levels and importantly curves adjustments.  It is therefore a far more complete overall image editor.  Unfortunately, in my eyes, it’s similarity to PhotoShop leads to one of its downfalls, because the way that you access all of these options is quite different, and therefore those who are used to using Adobe software can find it quite difficult switching between the two programs.  This won’t be a problem at all, though, if you don’t have access to Photoshop to begin with!

GIMP - GNU Image Manipulation Program
A serious contender as a free competitor to Adobe’s photoshop

The problem can also be avoided by using a related free program – Gimpshop – an amended version of GIMP specifically set up to look, act and feel a lot more like Photoshop.  Gimpshop has taken advantage of the open source nature of GIMP and has used its architecture to build out this rather astonishing piece of (presumably legal) plagiarism.  I can’t claim to be an expert on using it – but if you’re looking for a free Photoshop alternative, it would be totally remiss of me not to highlight this particular piece of software.

I will probably return to the subject of software in later blogs – but for now, I think that’s a good place to start.  I would love to see some of your “before and afters”, to hear your experience using these programs and any other alternatives.  Please feel free to share!

The hard truth about software

“inbuilt software is not infallible and of course, it can’t “look” at an image with a critical human eye”

The hard truth about software is that you need it. There are purists out there who argue that an image should be left as taken and that any form of digital manipulation or post processing is somehow cheating.  Frankly, I think that’s rubbish.  Digital cameras are all driven by software (firmware) specific to the camera, which helps them capture the images, setting the white balance, giving an interpretation of the dynamic range of a scene, carries out the automatic light metering to set the exposure etc. This inbuilt software is not infallible and of course, it can’t “look” at an image with a critical human eye – the camera may therefore not be able to capture a scene the way that you can in your mind’s eye.  Software allows you to make adjustments to the brightness and contrast of images, selectively adjust the levels to change the depth of shadows or brightness of highlights, crop images, straighten them and to sharpen them as necessary.  In short – software helps us ensure that our images are as good as they can be – and photos from all sorts of different cameras will benefit from this process.

So; the question is, what software?  And how much does it cost? Well, like so much else in Photography, the answer is as much as you want to spend.

Probably the most famous single piece of software for photographers is Adobe Photoshop, but it doesn’t come cheap.  It is now primarily available through monthly subscription (of £7.49 per month) so over the course of a year you’ll be paying around £90, and this would be an ongoing commitment to stump up that sum each year.  Photoshop Elements is a simpler version (and my preferred software) but even that will set you back around £60.  There are a number of other programs, such as Adobe’s Lightroom (£100) that many photographers swear by either alongside or instead of Photoshop, so you can see how costs can quickly escalate.

PhotoScape
PhotoScape is a free online photo editor with a selection of basic and useful tools.

It doesn’t have to be one of these expensive programs, though, and there are a number of free programs out there which can be extremely useful if you’re trying to avoid costs.  One that I think is particularly worthy of mention is PhotoScape. This free software includes RAW conversion to JPG and a competent photo editor including resizing tools, brightness and colour adjustment, white balance, backlight correction, cropping, various filters, red eye removal, blooming, paint brush, clone stamp and an effect brush.  It’s certainly no Photoshop, but for a photographer on a budget, it’s hard to find cheaper than free!!

“for a photographer on a budget, it’s hard to find cheaper than free!!”

Use software to turn this:

Manhattan (unedited)
The Manhattan skyline, but the white balance is a little off, and the image lacks contrast.

Into this:

The white balance has been corrected and the contrast increased.  The image has been cropped and sharpened.
The white balance has been corrected and the contrast increased. The image has been cropped and sharpened.

This shot was taken using my trusty Fuji bridge camera – but one of the great things about software like this is that you can use it to enhance images from any sort of camera (or cameraphone) really helping you get the best from modest equipment. An example of this is given below, shot on an old Pentax Optio E50 – a basic “point and click” compact:

Santa María la Real de La Almudena unedited
This image suffers from the shadows being too dark, and having an ugly date stamp on it.
Santa María la Real de La Almudena  edited
This image has been straightened and had its vertical perspective corrected, as well as the shadows lifted, date stamp removed and cranes in the background removed.