Monday, March 30, 2015

Combining Nikon Capture NX-D with Photoshop for ultimate control of dynamic range

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a technique I sometimes use to achieve the most amount of dynamic range from a scene taken with a Nikon camera by processing the RAW images twice, once with Nikon's Capture NX-D software where I have access to Active D-Lighting controls, and also in ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) where I have more experience and more tools to bring out the best in any image.

I rarely need to use this technique anymore because the native dynamic range of modern Nikon digital cameras is so extensive that a native RAW file is all that is needed to obtain a full tonal range of highlights and shadows. To perform this demonstration here I had to purposely take a photograph that would be pushing the range limits of the camera. That itself proved difficult to do. The Nikon cameras - in this case a D750 -- are just so good that, if the exposure is set to obtain detail in both highlights and shadows, there is enough information to deal with the file in regular post-processing.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go, and set up a scene with a model looking into an open refrigerator at night. Normally, I would light this with some small flash units hidden inside the refrigerator and balance this light with some exterior bounce lighting for the overall scene. For this demo, I decided to use only the single, normal bulb that is inside the refrigerator. The room was completely dark save for some very low ambient light coming from a distant window.

The photo below is the final image. It is a composite of two images -- one processed in NX-D to bring out the fullest dynamic range, and the other processed in ACR to achieve good contrast as befitting such an actual scene, while also maintaining some of the shadow and highlight detail. Frankly, I probably could have come very close to this final result using just ACR and Photoshop alone, a testament to the range of the Nikon camera sensor. Nonetheless, an image processed with this technique will have more of a three dimensional quality and more extensive detail in both highlight and shadow ranges, not dissimilar to a subtle use of HDR, but without the false look that HDR often imparts.

This is the final image combining both the Nikon Capture NX-D adjusted file and the Adobe ACR adjusted file with moderate Photoshop adjustments applied to the combination.

The photograph is lit entirely by the one, refrigerator bulb plus a very small amount of natural room light from a distant window. The intensity and color of the room light can be seen in the upper corners of the photo below. The light on the model's back is the refrigerator light being reflected back onto her from a nearby wall. Other than this, no other light or fill was used for the shot. The exposure was 1/15 second at f/5.6 and ISO of 640.

The original, unprocessed RAW file below has highlights that, while too bright, do contain detail. Same goes for the shadows. Without this detail nothing can be done to correct the image so proper exposure placement is important. To that end I bracket the shot.

This is the original RAW file right out of the camera exposed to preserve both highlight and shadow detail. 

Working in Capture NX-D I am only interested in bringing as much detail as I can to the overall image by using the Active-D feature. For this image I had Active-D set to high. I also tweaked some of the highlights and shadows with other controls. The final result from the NX-D process is an intentionally flat image with full detail.

In Capture NX-D I chose an Active D-Lighting level that brought out full detail. In this case it was set to "High". The resulting file is going to be flat, but that is compensated for later by combining this file with the ACR file later in Photoshop. I also made some adjustments to the exposure and highlight/shadow protection in NX-D. 

Working in ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) I brought out the highlight detail as much as possible. On this image I intentionally leave the contrast high because I will need it later when the very flat NX-D image is merged with this file. Both images are output as 16-bit tif files to provide the most amount of working depth.

The photo on the left is the file after it has been treated in Capture NX-D. On the right is the file after treatment in Adobe Camera RAW. The next phase is to combine these two images in Photoshop and merge them together to obtain the best features of each. 

The ACR is brought into Photoshop first. Next the processed NX-D tif is put on top of the ACR file as a separate layer. Turning down the opacity of this layer determines how much of each file is included in the final combination. In this case, I used 33%. The ACR file is providing the contrast, and the NX-D file is providing extra detail to both the shadows and highlights. As can be seen in the Photoshop layer masks below some further tweaking was needed to combine the two images. A final curves layer was added as a subtle, final adjustment. You can see where I held back some of this adjustment from the brightest area of the refrigerator by painting black on the curves adjustment mask.

This shows the two image layers combined in Photoshop with a final curves adjustment on top. That is all that was needed to finally merge these two images into one.

The idea going into this scene was to obtain a final image that preserved the true feeling of late night kitchen light from a refrigerator without completely losing all the highlight and shadow detail. Having recourse to this post-processing technique combined with the already excellent dynamic range of Nikon cameras made the setup of the scene simple. All I needed was a tripod. The refrigerator bulb provided all the necessary lighting. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Working at f/2.8 with the Fuji 50-140mm lens in pre-dawn light

More than an hour to go before sunrise. A dreary day, dull blue cast to the cloudy sky, some lights still on in the city, reflections and shadows creating graphic compositions everywhere I looked. The day before I saw my Fuji 50-140mm zoom sitting on a shelf, unused for quite some time. I decided to give it a workout on my X-T1.

With the aperture opened at f/2.8 to provide selective focus between the light, shadows, and the city in the background, I set the ISO to 1600 and began shooting away, hand-held, at the forms emerging in the dim light. The high ISO produced a pleasing noise pattern similar to the look of film grain so I didn't attempt to eliminate it. Shooting through glass with reflections and using a long, hand-held lens resulted in a softness to the images that the grain effect seemed to counter-balance.

I usually keep my Fuji X-cameras set to record in both jpg and RAW and black and white. This allows me to judge the contrast with the monochrome image in the finder and provides a reference jpg for later processing of the RAW file. A blue cast to the dark, overcast light reminded me of some early gum bichromate prints I had seen so I kept a few of the images in color but muted them a bit in post to mimic the process.

At times the noise-grain effect coupled with the muted colors took on a look quite similar to Fresson prints. To my mind, Fuji X-cameras, prehaps due to the more random nature of their sensor pixels, produce an image look closer to that of  high grained film. 

One of the nice things about working with the Fuji 50-140mm lens is that, heavy at it is, it is still much more comfortable and manageable than a full frame DSLR equivalent zoom. I think I'll be using it a lot more now after this experience. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Legends: The Kodak Bantam Special -- an Art Deco masterpiece

The Kodak Bantam Special may be one of the most uniquely beautiful cameras of all time. It was produced by Kodak from 1936-1948, and had a stylish Art Deco design consisting of a black enamelled cast aluminium body. The modernist design was done by Walter Dorwin Teague, a noted industrial design pioneer going back to the 1930's. Teague designed the famous Sparton table radios, a revamp of the Texaco gas station and logo, TWA identity, early Polaroid cameras, to name a few.

Two Kodak Bantam Specials are shown here with a Weston Master light meter of the same era. 

The Bantam Special was a popular camera with many high end features, such as built-in, split-image rangefinder focusing. It used 828 roll film that was 35mm film without the dual sprockets so the image was larger at 28 x 40mm. This results in a 25% increase in negative size over 35mm -- quite considerable. Obtaining the film today is another matter. At the end of this article I provide a source for re-rolled 828 film.

The Bantam Special was an expensive camera, priced at $110 (equivalent to about $1800 today) when it first came out in 1936. The price was later reduced to $87.50 as popularity increased production. 

The shutter was a Compur-Rapid with speeds of 1 to 1/500 second, plus T and B. The lens was a 45mm  Kodak Anastigmat Ektar with an aperture ranging from a fast f/2 down to f/16. With the advent of WWII in 1940 the German shutter was changed to an American Supermatic with coated optics. 

The rear of the camera showing the two finder windows. On the left is the split-image rangefinder, and on the right the composing viewfinder. The button on the rear was pushed to release the film for winding to the next exposure.  Because it used roll film, there was also a window on the back to see the exposure number. A roll of 828 film took 8 28x40mm exposures.

The camera collapsed into a very portable clam-shell cased pocket model, measuring 4 3/4" x 3 1/8" x 1 3/4". 

The small foot to keep the camera level in vertical position was located inside the front case. The camera serial number, a very early 13082 for this model, was engraved on the side of the sliding foot. 

The shutter was cocked with the top lever projecting from it and released either by cable release or with the small knob seen on the bottom left side in this photo.  The larger, round knob on the upper left was for focus. 


Kodak Bantam Special cameras do turn up on eBay, which is where I found the two I have in my collection.

The 828 roll film with Tri-X 400 is still produced by Film For Classics and is available through B&H here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Good morning, New York -- variations on a theme

The spire of the Chrysler Building greats the dawn in New York City. I grabbed these early morning shot with my Fuji X-T1 and the 55-200mm zoom. The lights in the spire stay on until sunrise so you can capture more than just a stark silhouette of the building when photographing it. Once the sun is up, the spire lights disappear as in the bottom two photos.

In situations like this I allow my composition to be dictated by the cloud patterns. In this changing situation from pre-dawn to sunrise, I ended up with three different formats, a square, a horizontal panorama, and a vertical panorama at the 16:9 crop setting on the camera. These photos were taken facing north so the sky color shows the reflected light from the sunrise.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Will my Fuji X-Pro1 earn a place on the shelf next to my Leica M4

There are certain cameras, for whatever reason, I have become attached to over my long career as a professional photographer. Even though I don't use them much anymore, they still hold a fond place in my memory and I hang onto them, putting them on a shelf to remind me of wonderful times, and occasionally taking them down and putting them back to work for the nostalgic fun of it.

My M4 was one of the last of the painted black over brass models. I had a Leica factory replacement of an M6 viewfinder to add a 28mm frame in the finder window so I wouldn't need to use a separate finder to nudge out my Leica meter's place on the hot shoe.

Two cameras I feel this way about are my Leica M4 and Fuji X-Pro1. Of course my M4 is a film camera, whereas my X-Pro1 is digital, and therein lies the difference in putting them back to use. A film camera of almost any era will produce images today that are not substantially different from even the most modern film camera. Digital cameras, on the other hand, have been evolving rapidly over the past fifteen years. In a sense they carry their "film" with them in the form of a sensor. As new cameras with improved sensors take their place the older models become completely obsolete.

Nikon's D1x of 2001 was recording at just 5.3 megapixels. A 35mm film camera of the same era could produce a scanned slide image that bested that at around a 24mp standard for commercial stock photography. Even today I can (and still do) scan film images from that time and earlier. These are perfectly usable -- maybe not up there with today's state of the art 24-36mp sensors, but good enough to make a large print.

Fuji got it right with this camera. It has all the practical features of an older analog system, with over-rides for digital convenience when needed. I especially love the combined optical/electronic view finder. 

The impetus for this post came because I heard last week that the X-Pro1 would be replaced by a newer X-Pro2, probably in September of this year. I felt a little sad about the idea of turning in my old X-Pro1.  It has the same cache for me as my Leica M4. Difference is that, while I still occasionally pick up my M4 and run a few rolls of film through it, I don't think I will be so inclined with a 16 mp X-Pro1 once a 24 mp X-Pro2 arrives. Digital cameras just don't have the same shelf life as film cameras. I could easily pick up and use -- as I sometimes do -- my first Nikon FTn without sacrificing a thing in terms of image quality from film. The same cannot be said about digital. Could you even imagine using a Nikon D1x today when even our cellphones are capable of higher res images. No wonder even cell phone covers come with pictures of old cameras on them.

I still have many of the film cameras I owned, but I immediately trade in my digital cameras as soon as a new model is announced. I wonder if this will change now that we seem to have reached a plateau of sorts on how far we can push the quality level of a digital sensor. For practical purposes, 16-24 mp seems to be all that is needed for most of what I do. Maybe that means some of today's digital cameras can enjoy longer, productive lives. My X-Pro1 is a fun camera to use. It feels good in the hand. Fortunately, there is a realm of my fine art work where the images from my X-Pro1 are all I need. Maybe that bodes well for it landing on the shelf next to my M4 once the X-Pro2 arrives.

Nothing can quite equal the beautiful patina of a brassing Leica. On any other camera they might be distracting. On a Leica they are a symbol of character. I sometimes wish the X-Pro1 had a brass casing. 
My X-Pro1 is showing signs of wear with scars and scrapings serving as reminders of hard use and good times. It is these battle scars, probably more than anything, that make a camera your own. You've been through a  lot together. Sometimes it is more than the pictures we bring back from a trip, it is the camera itself that serves up fond memories of what we did together.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

First look -- Canon's new 11-24mm f/4 super-wide angle lens

Yes, I realize this site concentrates primarily on Nikon, Fuji, Sony, and Leica brand cameras and accessories. Once in awhile, however, something worth shouting about comes along from another manufacturer. In this case, it is the new Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens. I was able to play with one on a new Canon 5D the other day, and have to say I was extremely impressed by it.

Until now, the widest rectilinear lens available for a full frame DSLR was the variable aperture Sigma 12-24 f/4.5-5.6. Nikon has the excellent 14-24mm f/2.8, but that suffers from enough rectilinear distortion to knock its practical focal length to something closer to 15+mm once it is corrected. The Canon 11-24 did not appear to have any rectilinear distortion that I could see.

Yes, it is f/4 vs f/2.8 for the Nikon lens, but making an element for an 11mm focal length accommodate an f/2.8 aperture would have boosted the already heavy 2.6lb lens even more. I actually sold off my Nikon 14-24mm because of its weight and size.

This is the perfect lens for dramatic landscape and architectural photographs. A lens this wide is quite specialized and is not for everyone, but, if it suits your shooting style, you're going to be as excited by it as I am. Added to the newly announced 50mp Canon camera coming out later this year, this will make a perfect landscape kit.

At $2999 this lens is definitely only for photographs with a serious need for such a wide angle. When this lens is more readily available I may be tempted to run it through its paces for a hands-on blog review.

If you are planning on buying this lens, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by clicking the link and purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Winter's last day

Just to remind us of the fickle power of Nature, this last day of winter hit the city with a mix of snow and cold rain at a time when we have already had enough of both. It was a strange weather pattern starting late in the day so that there wasn't much built up of snow until the evening. Like most New Yorkers, I had already had enough of winter so  instead of going out to photograph anything specific I thought I would just take whatever came my way, and concentrated mostly on serendipitous abstractions.

This image and the one below is of the rain patterns through the roof of a taxi. These images are too small to show it, but the city buildings are clearly focused inside the rain drops themselves. Taken with the Fuji X-T1 and a setting of 18mm on the 18-135mm zoom.

Same situation as the photo above it, but here I switched to the Fuji 14mm wide angle lens. 

I was setting up to photograph the hanging icicles with only a little bit of the Empire State Building showing through the mist, when the clouds opened up just for a few seconds to reveal more of the identifying outline of the top of the building. I had time to grab two exposures of it before it disappeared back into the mist. 

I grabbed this impressionist view of Bryant Park later in the evening with the Sony RX100 III.  I liked the way the blur pattern emphasized the driving snowy mix and made the scene more abstract. The ISO was set to 1600, and instead of eliminating all the noise, I corrected only part of it leaving some to preserve the impressionist effect it lent to the picture.