Category: Processing

Moving Mini

This has to be the blog post that has been in my mind for the longest period ever, but four months after I did the photographs the post can finally be written. Much has happened in that time, but the one thing that hasn’t is the planned event that prompted me to try a different branch of photography to my norm – automotive photography. The planned event? The sale of our five-year old Mini.

We’ve owned our little Mini Cooper for five years, but the time has come to acquire something a little bigger, and with five doors. I’m not the smallest of people, and the Mini looked a bit crowded with me driving it. Having the extra doors means more flexibility with the small person as well so it’s a no-brainer, but still not an easy decision. In July we found a suitable car and rather quicker than planned purchased it, so suddenly became a three-car family. And the four-year-old just isn’t old enough to drive the Mini yet, no matter how much she’ll argue the toss.

So with the decision made to sell the opportunity was there to try something new and try my hand at taking pictures of cars. I’ve done some F1 shooting, as seen on the blog and in the galleries, but the pictures I’ve taken in the past of our cars have been little more than record shots. The Mini is an ideal candidate for photographing because frankly it looks a lot more interesting than a Mercedes or a Citroen. The plan was hatched, and the aim was to take a few different shots in different locations in Milton Keynes: A dusk shoot in the woods with flash, an interior shot, some close-up detail shots and the big one – shots of the Mini moving.

I’ve never done anything like this, but I’m lucky enough to know Chris and Darren Teagles who are both big into their automotive photography, and pretty darned good at it too. Chris (his website is here) is studying Photography in University at the moment and is already well known for his automotive photography and has been published too, deservedly so. Chris and Darren have a camera rig which they use on a variety of cars, so I contacted them to see if they would be willing to have a go with the Mini. Of course, they were more than willing to oblige so we set up two different styles of shot – one outdoors in a country lane, the other in a more urban environment in an underground car park.

So early in the evening we all met up on the old A5 near Little Brickhill. This used to be the main road from Dunstable to Milton Keynes, but the building of the bypass around the village rendered this road closed at the southern end of the village and you wouldn’t really recognise it as one of the former main roads in the country these days. Here is where I started to get out of my comfort zone and into something completely new – rig photography.

Country Road

A rig is essentially a giant telescopic carbon fibre pole which attaches to the car. Attachment is via large suction cups – one on the roof, one on the windscreen. Hanging from the pole was an adjustable pole for the camera, which dangled upside down at the end. If you think you know your camera and all the button locations, try using it upside down – it is impossible! Once set up we ended up with a very valuable camera and an equally valuable wide-angle lens dangling from an expensive pole held on a car with suction cups. What could possibly go wrong?!

The “after” picture above shows good speed on the car, but I’m afraid that is somewhat of an illusion. Darren drove the Mini while I walked alongside activating the camera and we never got above a medium walking pace. Setting ISO 50 at f/22 gave us a 3sec shutter speed, which worked out rather nicely for the sense of speed without the dangers of my camera whizzing along the road at high speed. The biggest difficulty was keeping the rig steady – the road looked smooth, but even the smallest bump was amplified, equally the car had to be driven in a silky manner to prevent it. Each run we did – probably 100m in total – allowed me to continuously shoot about a dozen images, and then pick the sharpest and the image with the best background.

All well and good, but when I got home I was faced with an image which was a) upside down, and b) had a pole in it. The first part is easily solved, the second part required Photoshop. Lots of Photoshop. “Clone out the pole” they say, how hard can it be? Answer: ridiculously. To make the trees look natural, to correct the roof of the car where the suction cup was, to erase all the pole reflections in the bodywork and to get rid of myself and Chris who were both visible in the shot at Little Brickhill took a long time – probably about 4hrs on that image alone.

Underground MiniThe other location we used during our evening was the new Sainsburys car park in The Hub, Central Milton Keynes. Not somewhere I’d have thought of using but Chris and Darren were familiar with it – and what a location. At 8pm on Saturday it was almost empty, and we were able to turn a corner and play on a straight section. Billiard table smooth and with unusual lighting the effect was stunning on the finished image. Here the darker conditions gave us a 5sec exposure at f/22 with ISO 100, again we had shake to contend with but by using two images and cloning the bits that needed to be sharp from one the the other I came up with what is rapidly becoming my favourite image ever.

The picture looks great now, but boy did it take some processing work. I reckon I spent around 8hrs on this in Photoshop, much of it needed but I’m sure the final hour or so was spent satisfying my OCD. This was the harder of the two shots by far because not only did I have to clone the pole out, but also the suction cup on the windscreen (above the tax disc which I also removed!). Removing those items took a lot of fiddly cloning, including rebuilding the headrest and making sure everything was spot on. There were more reflections of the pole in the bonnet and down the bumper which were tricky – nothing is straight on the car, so cloning curves took a lot of time!

So my first experience of automotive photography was a success. I’ve got some great pictures and we have some really good images of the Mini with which to remember it by and to sell it with hopefully. Anyone want to by a Mini?!

Back from holiday, back to reality

Well it was a good three weeks or so while it lasted but last Saturday the inevitable happened and we had to board one of Mr Branson’s jumbo jets and return to the UK. We returned to what was described as a heatwave so I guess that goes some way to absorbing the shock of the return – normally when we get back from holiday in early February there is snow or frost on the ground in the UK.

While out in the USA I had the MacBook with me and tried my best to keep on top of the photo editing in the evenings and when time permitted, but didn’t want to delete any of the original files until I got home so ended up filling about 250GB of hard drive space during the holiday…holding the original files in Lightroom and then exporting the edits to Aperture also increased the disk space usage somewhat, but it seems to be a workflow that is working for me at the moment so I’ll stick with it. I also haven’t published many images at all yet, I tried to choose a picture of the day and uploaded that one completed to Flickr. The rest will have to wait…

Splash Mountain

…and by the rest there isn’t actually that many. We’ve been out to Florida enough by now that I was aiming to get some good shots of Megan, and some of what I described to myself as “Wow” or detail shots from around the parks. Wow shots were shots of the quality I see on Flickr from so many of the photographers who are lucky to call Walt Disney World their home, and are able to visit regularly – different angles and shots that tourists may miss. How did I do in this challenge? Meh. I got a few good shots, but only three or four of my pictures of the day really stand out for me as images I’m really proud of – one of which is the shot on the right of Splash Mountain at night. You can view my other Pictures of the Day by clicking that image to move to the gallery of all 24 images.

Numbers wise it is surprising to see how many shots I took. I took about 6,500 shots in total over the 3 1/2 weeks we were out in the USA. Of those I have kept just 380 to be published, or synced to iPhones/iPads for display. While that number seems small I took 42 shots which were converted into 3-shot HDR images and a further 21 keepers were converted from 7 or more shots into HDR, so you could say in total I’ve kept about 650 shots. Ironically that tallies with my normal average of keeping about 10% of what I shoot – I’ve wanted to improve this average for some time but have never managed to for whatever reason.

Why take so many you ask? Good question, and I wish I didn’t. Some of it was down to experimentation – I’ve never managed to get good shots in the dark rides for example, but this time armed with better knowledge and camera skill I went in to the rides with a plan to get more shots. I got some good images in The Little Mermaid and Winnie The Pooh for example, but didn’t manage to get much in the likes of Peter Pan or Pirates of the Caribbean – both are significantly darker than the first two mentioned. Each time I went in a ride I tended to snap off 50-100 images depending on the ride, and didn’t spend much time looking through the viewfinder but rather snapping and looking – so the results and throwaway images will reflect that. Fireworks are another example where I take a lot and keep just a few – we saw the fireworks at Epcot and Magic Kingdom, and I set the camera up and more-or-less let it shoot for the whole time while I watched. I then kept just a few because at the end of the day who wants to see 200 fireworks shots?! Shots of Megan were few and far between this time, she seems to be at a “reluctant” stage with camera posing right now, so we just let her get on with it and enjoy the holiday.

So overall a great holiday with great weather (well, except a couple of rainy days but we coped!) and some interesting learning with the camera, particularly in dark rides. I really wish I could spend a whole year just photographing the parks and areas around there, just the odd night simply isn’t enough time to nail the perfect shot, but what I’ve gotten this time I’ve pretty pleased with. In the coming days I’ll finally finish tagging the rest of my images and they will join Linda’s images in the Florida 2014 galleries. Thanks for looking!


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…