Category: Computer

Useful iPhone Apps

As many of you will know I’m an iPhone user and have been for many years. One of the key phrases of iPhone users has always been the advertising slogan “there’s an app for that” and it’s true – there is. From football scores to train timetables there are over 1 million apps now in the iTunes Store. Android and Windows users have their own app stores, LE Calculator screenshotI’m sure there are many apps on there but can’t really comment.

There are many photography apps available on the store, some more useful than others. The iOS camera app is a bit meh, although improving, so other camera control apps are out there which allow better control and editing functions. Many people use Snapseed for editing, recently purchased by Google, but there are other little utility gems out there – and I’ve found a pretty hand one too. Best of all, it’s free.

I visited the coastline around Weston-Super-Mare last week with the intention of trying out some long exposure photography. Armed with 10-stop and 6-stop Hoya filters off I went. Calculating the exposure time can be a nightmare if you are as numerically dyslexic as I am, so finding the LE Calculator was a bonus to say the least.

The app couldn’t be easier to use – select the filter strength, and the metered time the camera gave you before you bolted the filters on and the result is shown big and bold. It’ll even act as a timer for you if the camera doesn’t have a counter on it (the one thing Canon does that Nikon doesn’t). One small complaint is that the timer doesn’t actually refer to what the time was – I managed to get an exposure of 2hrs using both filters, and mistakenly assumed it meant 2mins!!!

So in summary LE Calculator is a decent looking app which is free, simple to use and pleasingly accurate – I found that after one shot I’d gotten the exposure about spot on and didn’t need to re-take the image because of exposure, merely for my incompetence. The only other thing to ensure you know is what strength the filter is – in my case I have an ND64 (6 stop) and an ND1000 (10 stop). As in many things in photography there are many numbers to describe things and they don’t necessarily make sense…!

The Great Editing Debate

Those who know me will know I’m a bit of an Apple fan. Having bought an iPhone 3G back in 2008 I’ve become a firm believer in how well the different devices interact with each other and how simple everything is to run. As a result this household now has a complete array of Apple products from AppleTV to MacBooks, and with recent software updates photo editing, storage and display has never been easier.

Yes, iTunes is a bit of a beast these days and could do with simplifying. But generally speaking Apple’s software (and indeed operating system, be it iOS or Mavericks) does what it says on the tin and works very well for the purpose it is designed for. This fact extends to their Aperture software which I have been using since early 2011. Aperture is a typical piece of Apple software – clean, simple, and easy to use. The way it holds images and creates a library for them is simplicity in itself, and the editing tools work for me most of the time – some complex edits need to be done in Photoshop, but not that many. The biggest omission from Aperture is the lack of lens correction, but for most images this isn’t a big deal. It looks clean, it is easy to navigate and easy to publish from. I’ve got all my photos sorted and easy to find in Aperture, which looks like this – this is the Projects view where each day is sorted into its own folder.

The "Projects" page - each photo day is easily sorted.

Just recently though I’ve found myself using the Photoshop Raw processing more and more. Partly for the lens correction abilities, but also because it just seems that little bit better at dragging the details out of the original raw image. Switching between Aperture and Photoshop is not that easy because you cannot export a RAW file from Aperture into Photoshop – it sends a TIFF file across so you lose the ability to edit the raw data. I’ve been exporting the RAW file onto the desktop and editing it in Photoshop before saving the file and re-importing the edit back into Aperture. Not a big deal, but it adds a bit of faff to my workflow.

So with the thought in my mind that Adobe software does improve the quality of the editing I’m trying out Lightroom 5. Many of my photography friends use Lightroom and swear by it, some even swear in front of it I’m sure so I’ve installed it and copied all of my 2014 images across to have a proper play when I already have a rough idea of the outcome. That was the first problem before I even got to edit everything – Lightroom doesn’t manage the library – it expects you to. Lightroom is nowhere near as intuitive, clean or simple as Aperture either – it takes me an age to find anything but that should improve with time. The key thing for me is that it doesn’t look as easy to use, far too many drop-downs or hidden options. Below is a shot of Lightroom in Library mode.

As I say, nowhere near as clean. You can’t view an image in perfect full-screen. You sort of can, but it retains a border oddly and I can’t remove it. Publishing images on Aperture is a one-click process, highlight the image(s) and send them to Flickr or SmugMug. It seems way more difficult on Lightroom and takes much more time, the same with exporting – although I’ll admit I’ve found a slightly quicker way to do that now.

But for editing the image, once I’d moved into the “Develop” section and found the controls anyway, Lightroom is brilliant. It has the Adobe Camera Raw engine built-in, so the edits in Lightroom are the same as I’d do in Photoshop. I can bring out far more details in Lightroom than I can in Aperture, I can do the lens corrections automatically, the sharpening and noise reduction sliders actually work in Lightroom too. Big plusses there, and I can also send files from Lightroom directly to Photomatix and have the result returned to Lightroom. Bingo. There is a Photomatix plug-in for Aperture which does it in-house but it just isn’t quite as good as the main program. I posted two identical images on Facebook recently – one edited in Aperture, the other Lightroom – and the Lightroom picture was almost universally preferred – including by myself.

The final nail in Lightroom’s coffin for me is the ability to share images easily. Using Aperture all my devices (iPad, iPhone, AppleTV) are automatically synchronised with the latest images through iTunes. I don’t have to think about it, I have it set up in iTunes for each device and they just update. Not possible in Lightroom, iTunes doesn’t talk to it – I’d have to get iTunes to look in the folders and that is a receipe for disaster in my mind.

So where do I go from here? I love the editing power of Lightroom, but hate the complexity of the library (or lack thereof) and incompatibility with everything else. It seems far too complicated generally, too many hidden functions and cluttered displays although I’m sure this is a) a matter of personal preferences, b) customisable and c) I’ll get used to it eventually! I’m going to try taking some images and using Lightroom to edit them before using Aperture as my storage library, but that kind of defeats the object I reckon. The aim was to simplify my workflow, if my workflow has to include exporting to the desktop and back into Aperture occasionally well so be it. I think I’ll be waiting for Apple to finally release Aperture 4 and hope it is a significant improvement in the editing department, because as a library and a tool generally it is still well ahead in my opinion.

HDR: Good or evil?

HDR is one of the more divisive post-processing techniques in modern photography. Many love it and use it all the times while others will describe it as unnatural and ruinous. So which is it?

I suppose the first question should be WHAT is it? HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and as the name suggests it is a set of post-processing techniques to produce a greater range of luminosity in an image than a standard image would normally show. It can often be done in camera these days – even iPhones have a HDR mode – but is most often done in post-processing with software such as Photoshop or Photomatix. The idea is that processing it allows more details in the image by combining a number of differently-exposed images, which allows the shadows or highlights (bright or dark areas) in a “normal” image to display more data.

So why is HDR frowned upon so much? It’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer dispassionately. Some people absolutely love it and use it all the time, others will say it gives an unnatural effect and ruins an image. I personally believe both arguments are valid. HDR has a place in photography, especially these days with all the magic that can be done in Photoshop, but is something that should be used with caution. Time and a place and all that. It is also very easy to “over-do” HDR, and I can look back through some of my older images and shudder at the processing I made on them back then.

In my opinion the best HDR images are the ones where the viewer doesn’t realise it is HDR at all. Here are two shots I’ve taken of buildings at night, one is HDR and the other one isn’t. See if you can tell which is which…

The London Skyline








So, two images both taken at night with a variety of colours and reflections in the water and on the buildings. Both look pretty similar in quality, with none of the obvious ghosting around the sharp edges or excessive contrasts and graininess that a HDR image can show.  The London Skyline shot is however in HDR, and the Dolphin Hotel is a straight image. Of the two images the Dolphin Hotel is much brighter and more evenly lit, so was easier to extract the data in a single shot. London had many different levels of lighting ranging from the brightly lit dome of St Pauls to the much dimmer arches of Blackfriars Bridge.

The human eye will have seen the London skyline pretty much as that photo on the right, but then the human eye can take in much more information and light than the sensor on a digital camera. A human eye can see up to 12 stops of light, which the camera is limited to around 3.  This is where the HDR bit becomes useful and can help to extract more data from a scene, especially one with large differences in light from the darkest areas to the brightest.

So HOW did I do it? A tripod is almost essential for HDR photography, because you are taking three (or more) images. On my Nikon D600 I have an auto-bracketing feature which takes three shots quickly at whatever exposure gaps I set – I normally take them at +2, 0 and -2 compensation which is what I did here. On these images I shot in Aperture priority mode with the aperture at f/8, which gave me three images of 8sec, 2sec and 30sec. I chose f/8 because it was the narrowest aperture I could get with the brighter image no more than 30sec recording time. So, I ended up with three RAW images which looked like this:

HDR originals

You can see here clearly the different light ranges the three images have captured. Using the dome of St Pauls as the guide, the “standard” image on the left is not too bad, while the middle image is clearly over-exposed. The image on the right has the most detail for the dome, and also many of the other lights visible, while the buildings are more clear in the middle image. So it’s the best bits of the middle and right images that will be merged with the standard image to increase and correct the level of detail.

How to merge it all though?  If you are feeling brave then you can do it all manually in Photoshop using layer masks and any other amount of wizardry. I’m not so good with Photoshop though, I can just about clone something out – most of the time.  Photoshop has a HDR function built in too, but I use a program called Photomatix to do the merging. Photomatix works as a standalone program or as a plugin within Aperture which is my default photo library and editing software on the Mac.  Simply load the three images into the software, answer a few simple questions on alignment and deghosting, and it does all the hard work. Once at the main page you have a variety of presets to enhance the image with ranging from Natural – which I use most of the time – to the more extreme HDR examples such as “Painterly”, which gives a more recognisable effect.  Once I’ve selected the best preset I then use the sliders to tweak the image and get the settings just as I want them. Once this is done the image is processed and you have a final set of options to add sharpness and contrast. Both can come out on the low side from a HDR image, the sharpness especially.

With the London Skyline image I first adjusted all the bracketed images in Adobe Camera Raw, correcting them for colour, contrast, shadows and highlights plus the Lens Correction. Although the originals are only small you will probably notice that I spent a lot of time removing the most populous item on the London skyline generally right now – the cranes. There are soooooo many of them!

So when shouldn’t you use HDR?  Again, it’s all down to taste really. HDR works best where there is a lot of light change from the darkest to the lightest, so portraits and pictures in the park on a sunny day might not work for it.  Moving objects in an image can be difficult to make good HDR images of, although the Photomatix software does manage to remove ghosting (where a person has moved from the first to the third image for example) quite well. It’s all down to experimentation really and what the photographer likes to see from the final image.

Taking a three-shot bracket isn’t the only way to get all the data for a HDR image. My shot of Blackfriars Station was a 10-shot HDR image taken completely manually. In Manual mode with aperture set to f/13 and ISO 100 I took 10 shots ranging from 60secs down to just 1sec, and then merged them all in. Why ten though? Well, it probably didn’t need quite that much but it gave the processing software far more information to play with. The final image took me a good couple of hours to process to get the colours and tones just how I wanted them, so HDR isn’t a “quick-fix” by any means! The final image though I was rather pleased with:

Blackfriars Station

For a far more comprehensive – and humorously written – tutorial on HDR with some awesome photographs to boot I’d recommend taking a few minutes to look at Trey Ratcliff’s HDR tutorial – it was the starting point for me to figure out how to get the best out of the technique, he also has some handy discount codes for the software.

If you want to see more examples of my HDR work, click on the Search button on the left and enter “HDR”. You’ll be surprised at some of the images that I’ve taken that are HDR. You should also be able to figure out quite quickly which ones were my earlier efforts at the method!


Unsorted – NONE!

Well, that took a while but finally have my “Unsorted” folder back empty, and as a result about 60GB of space back on my hard drive!

I use Aperture on the Mac for all my photo editing, Photoshop is available but is used only if I need to do something exotic. I have a workflow that I use which involves putting all of my raw images into an Unsorted folder and then looking through and flagging those I deem worthy of editing. Once edited I move them into their own folder and then tag, caption, title, geotag and face tag them all so I can search my library quickly. Only then do I publish the images here or onto sites such as Flickr.

If I want to get an image online quickly I still do the same but just for the individual image. Then others will join it in the folder once edited.

When I believe I’ve finished with a project I then go back through the Unsorted folder again to see if there is anything I’ve missed or that is good enough to keep for whatever reason. Then the big moment – deleting the junk.

By the time I come to empty the folder I have a Time Machine backup and a Crashplan backup on the Internet, so it isn’t a big deal – but selecting images and hitting the delete key is a scary moment. Over 500 were deleted from Abbey House Gardens alone, and I know some people would say to keep all – but space will quickly become an issue.

So now I’m left with just the images I’ve edited and like. They are all tagged and neat, and published online. And my hard disk can breathe once more…