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High ISOs in the Wild

Elk in Twilight Meadow
Elk captured at dusk in meadow with Canon 5D set to ISO 1600.

Sometimes nature presents you with a great shot... but in less than ideal lighting. This was the case with this Tule Elk I discovered in a meadow at twilight. His beautiful antlers (14 points!) were easily discernible with my eyes, but even at ISO 1600, my Canon 5D needed a slowish 1/15 of a second at f-5.6. Without the ability to use a high ISO, I never could have captured this shot.

In a future podcast I'm going to discuss image sensor size and its relationship to usable images at high ISOs.

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One of the great debates among advanced digital photographers is whether to use the JPEG or Raw format for recording images. Both formats are capable of producing high-quality pictures, but when you shoot in JPEG mode, the camera processes the image for you so it is "complete" when you upload it to your computer.

Images captured in Raw format, on the other hand, are not complete when you transfer them to your workstation. This process is more like taking a negative into a darkroom where you can adjust white balance and exposure until you get the perfect image. It's true that you can make those same adjustments in post-production with JPEGs, but it's different because you're readjusting information that's already been set. With Raw you are actually mapping the original bits of information.

One of my battle cries is “good data in; good data out.” The better you capture your shot, the easier it will be to produce high-quality output. By shooting in Raw mode, you're able to delay some difficult decisions until you're in the comfort of your own home, working at your computer.

A Practical Example for Shooting Raw

A good example is determining the correct white balance, which is often difficult at the moment of exposure, especially under fluorescent or mixed lighting. When you shoot in JPEG mode you have to make an immediate decision and, if you're wrong, you have to figure out how to correct it later.

In Raw mode, it doesn't make as much difference which white balance setting you have when you shoot the picture. The camera just records the “raw” data and lets you fine tune the color later while at the computer. You can apply different color temperatures to the image, view their appearance, and have the computer apply one that you like without any compromise to image quality. It's just like choosing white balance at the time of exposure (only better because you're looking at a 17” monitor, not a 2” LCD screen!).

Raw Software

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW format, it will include software to work with these images. Photoshop users can also work with Raw files right in Photoshop using the Camera Raw plug-in. (This includes Photoshop Elements that's available for less that $100.) And now iPhoto 5 users can include Raw files in their libraries. So no matter which software you use, this method is as close as you can come to a true digital darkroom, and it provides you with maximum flexibility for processing your images. Working with Raw images requires more work and processing time later at the computer. But for situations in which you want absolute control over quality and final output, Raw is an excellent option.

Which is best for you? A common-sense approach would be to capture at the highest JPEG settings for your “everyday” shooting, and take advantage of the Raw format for difficult lighting situations, or when you want to squeeze every drop of quality out of your picture-taking process.

Listen to the Podcast

Now that you have your curiosity piqued, it's time to listen to today's audio show title, "Raw: To Shoot or Not to Shoot." You can download the podcast here (34 minutes).

Jenner Post Office

Jenner Post Office
I often prefer to use a wide angle lens for these types of shots... it's more dramatic.

This little Post Office in Jenner, CA (up the Northern California coast) had terrific morning light and a pleasing color palette. I took the first shot standing back at a distance with the zoom set to 40mm. But the image just didn't have the impact that I wanted. So I changed the focal length to 17mm and got as close as possible for this composition. Here's the resulting image.

I'm posting this shot as a reminder to try different angles and focal lengths when you find interesting subjects. It's particularly effective when they hold still for you...

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Aperture Draws Crowds at Photo Expo

Photo Expo
Apple with its new product, "Aperture" has been a big star at PhotoPlus Expo in NYC. Photo courtesy of Scott Sheppard - Inside Mac Media, Inc.

I've heard from many sources that Apple's presence on the PhotoPlus Expo trade show floor added the extra boost of energy that the event needed. Apple chose this venue to unveil Aperture, its new pro workflow solution that's particular appealing to Raw shooters. I'll cover more on this software in the coming weeks.

Aperture Demo
Rob Schoeben, VP of Applications Marketing, introduces Aperture at the Apple press event in NYC. Photo courtesy of Scott Sheppard - Inside Mac Media, Inc.

In a nutshell, Aperture is designed to make your Raw workflow as painless as managing Jpegs. The engineering team has spent almost two years researching how photographers like to work and what's most important to them in post production. The design team took what they learned, combined it with the power of Tiger, and created Aperture.

This isn't iPhoto. It will cost you $499. For pros, it's justifiable because at $100 an hour in time savings, you get your money back quickly. To really appreciate this app, you have to see it operating on two side-by-side 30" displays. (Today's hardware announcements are in concert with Aperture and Final Cut Studio.) This is particularly helpful when you're culling images -- placing them side by side at 100 percent -- trying to quickly determine which are the best.

On the downside, the hardware requirements are pretty steep for this application. If you have an old Mac... forget it!

Still One More Thing...

One More Thing...

This week Apple is making another big announcement in conjunction with PhotoPlus Expo. I think we're going to see some serious photography tools coming our way. For more musings on this, see my O'Reilly weblog, Ladies and Gentlemen, It's Photography Time.

Jobs Group Shot

I mentioned yesterday that my normal workflow for Raw images has been disrupted by the new .CR2 files from the Canon 5D DSLR. Neither Adobe Bridge nor Apple iPhoto 5 allow me to browse these Raw thumbnails. Once I find a file I like, however, I can open and edit in Camera Raw.

Looking for a temporary workaround, I decided to open the folder of Raw files from the recent Apple "One More Thing..." event in Canon's Digital Photo Professional software that comes bundled with the 5D DSLR. I selected the post-event group shot with Steve Jobs and Wynton Marsalis that was captured from across the room at ISO 1600 with no flash.

The first thing I noticed was that the user interface for Canon's software had improved over their other apps I had used in the past. I was able to quickly locate my Raw files and open their thumbnails. You can rate you pictures with a "check" system, sort by rating, rotate, and view the metadata. To edit, simply double-click on the image. Most of the basic tools are there. I played with white balance mostly, but tried brightness and curves too. When I was finished, I had the option to convert and export the data as an Jpeg, 8-bit Tiff, or 16-bit Tiff. I chose 16-bit Tiff. I would have liked to have a Photoshop file choice too though.

Once I opened the Tiff in Photoshop, I made a few more adjustments to create the picture you see here. Overall, I prefer the Bridge/Camera Raw combination, but for the time being, will probably use the Canon software for browsing my Raw files, then actually work on them in the Adobe software. I am glad, however, that I tried Digital Camera Professional. It's an attractive way to view and sort your Raw pictures (Jpegs too!)... and it's bundled free with the camera.

Dealing with Canon 5D Raw Files

Pacifica, CA

I was in Pacifica, CA today for an appointment and had a chance to test the Canon's 5D Raw format. I must say, it was quite exciting to attach my 17-40mm f-4 zoom to the 5D and see the world full frame at 17mm. The 5D kept up with my pace of shooting and didn't slow me down as it recorded in Raw.

Processing the images was another matter. Adobe Bridge couldn't generate thumbnails for the .CR2 files (Raw on the 5D), nor could iPhoto 5. I could open the images by dragging them to Photoshop and editing in Camera Raw 3.2. But to browse the thumbnails, I had to use Canon's Image Browser application.

I'm hoping that we'll see updates to Bridge and iPhoto 5 soon. In the meantime, my workflow is a little clunky for Canon 5D Raw files.

Recalibrating Our Spending Habits

Canon Digital Rebel XT

I was thumbing through Popular Photography last night and noticed that I could buy a top of the line Canon 35mm camera (EOS-1V) for $1,650. In all my years of running Story Photography, I've never owned a pro model film camera, and have survived (nicely) with the midrange Elan 7. In fact, I wouldn't even spring for the EOS-3, a great camera, that's available for less than $900.

Yet, I've plunked down $1,500 for a Canon 10D, $900 for Rebel XT, and recently $3,200 for the Canon 5D digital SLR bodies. Funny how our perceptions change based on the tools that we perceive we need. To my credit, I resisted buying a digital SLR body when they were running close to $10,000. I stuck it out with advanced amateur models until the price became slightly more reasonable. I'm not that crazy.

Canon 5D Already Making Waves

Canon 5D

My Canon 5D has just shipped from B&H Photo. While I wait for it to arrive, I've been chatting with a couple photographers who are already using it. James Duncan Davidson has been shooting with the Canon 5D to cover the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. He's really thrilled about the images he captured at high ISOs, even up to 3200. I examined them myself (you can too), and I must say they are stunning. It appears that this camera is destined to become the darling of many photojournalists and wedding photographers. More on this soon.