Last weekend I drove the 30 minutes from my house up to Tacoma and Titlow Park. I’d never been there and didn’t know what I’d find. It’s a fun challenge for me to go to a new place like this and look for good compositions. The particular spot in the photo above is signed “Hidden Beach”.
This shot of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge looked better in black and white, with tasteful contrast and “structure” adjustments in NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 to bring out the textures and tones, rather than the colors. It’s hard to tell this was almost sunset, but the original color version doesn’t show off the massive concrete slabs, choppy water, and distant, towering bridge. The blue sky and water dominated everything, and caused these other elements to blend in. So a black and white conversion was a way to bring them out.
I’ve had my EOS 6D for half a year now, but I am still amazed how much detail can be pulled out of black shadows from its RAW files. I have had to change the way I expose my shots. I used to try to find the best balance between highlights and shadows. If the shadows were black and the highlights blown, I’d have to give up on the shot. Now I adjust my exposure to make sure I don’t have any major highlight blowouts, and worry about the shadows in post processing, because I can usually get quite a bit of detail out of very dark shadows. These shots taken just before sunset are a perfect illustration of this.
I should admit I took some artistic license and enhanced some of these shots beyond what is completely natural. Our eyes see scenes like this much better than a camera does, so another challenge is to bring the image back to the level of detail and tones that our eyes can see, or as close as possible. I used four different adjustment filters in NIK Color Efex Pro 4 to get this result. The original image had heavy, black shadows and muted colors without any editing.
Here’s a perfect example. The sand behind this stump was black as a silhouette, as was the stump itself. But amazingly there was detail there, and I used a combination of Lightroom’s “Shadows” adjustment and NIK Color Efex Pro 4’s “Pro Contrast” to get it back.
All of these shots were taken with the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L lens on the EOS 6D. I’ve had the lens for 10 years, but it’s like having a new lens when I switched to a full-frame body. I can get much wider angles and perspectives. It brings a whole new meaning to “foreground interest”!
After using a Tiffen circular polarizer (hereafter referred to as a CPL) for ten years, I got a good deal on a more expensive B+W MRC CPL. I paid about $35 for the Tiffen in 2004, and the B+W normally sells for around $130. So the big question is: Do you get $95 worth of increase in image quality and durability?
I believe Tiffen has different levels (multi-coated costs more than single-coated, etc.) and I don’t know where mine fits, but judging by the price, I think it’s a mid-level filter.
Now I’m going to post some photos I took earlier today. Each set has the exact same adjustments applied, and all were shot on a tripod at f/16 with no other filters attached. But since these two filters are doing exactly the same job, it is pretty difficult to see the difference in my exported JPEG files. Looking at 11MP RAW files at 100% I can see very subtle differences.
All these photos were taken with my EF 35mm f/2 IS, using a 72mm to 67mm step ring. As happens with wider-angle lenses and polarizers at max effect, parts of the sky can be darker than others. I should mention that these darker areas can be faded by rotating the polarizer back a little to reduce its effect. Lets look at one more set before I get into my observations.
Since I started using the B+W, the first things I noticed is that it doesn’t darken the blue skies quite as much, but the reflection reduction looks more natural. I think the glass in the B+W is a little sharper (or the Tiffen is a little softer), but that is hard to prove here. Details look a little better defined with the B+W. I’d need to do some close-up shots with sharp details to really test this, even though the typical application for polarizers is landscape photos.
One more thing I had not noticed in practical use during the last 3 months, is that the colors (without correction) look more natural and neutral with the B+W. The Tiffen has a sort of artificial look. Most of this is purely subjective and not really scientific.
The B+W has a brass ring which threads much easier than the aluminum ring of the Tiffen. This was the most obvious difference to me while shooting and changing filters. The difference of the effect itself is very subtle in practical use. Could I get by with the Tiffen? Absolutely, but I like the more natural look and easy threading of the B+W. Is it worth an extra $95? Probably not, but there is certainly a difference in quality, and I’m not sorry I made the purchase.
I took this shot from Hamilton Viewpoint Park in West Seattle. I had my 10-year-old EF 70-200mm f/4L lens on my new EOS 6D. The lens itself has a fairly severe back focusing problem (focuses slightly further than what the autofocus point is aimed at). When I first noticed it, I chalked it up to camera shake blur, or I would have returned it and asked for another copy. The more I used it, I began to notice that an animal’s eyes (which I pointed the AF point at) were a little soft, but the fur on its shoulders was tack sharp. If my shutter speed was too slow the whole shot would have been soft. Thank goodness for Canon’s MFA (Micro-Focus Adjustment) feature on their newer dSLRs!
My EOS 50D and EOS 7D allowed you to set an autofocus compensation adjustment for each lens, which the AF system would take into account each time you attached a particular lens. Very handy, but I discovered the 6D actually has separate wide and telephoto MFA settings for each lens. Awesome! Especially for troublesome lenses like my 70-200mm. I’ve tried hooking my 7D to my computer and focusing on a target on the wall halfway across the house to make these settings. This time I took a more practical, albeit less scientific, approach.
I like using magnified Live View and manually focusing to ensure sharp landscapes. Action shots or situations which require precise timing and a quick shutter finger can’t take advantage of this technique, but it works for tripod shots of static subjects. To set my MFA adjustments, I set the camera on a tripod and focused on a subject that was about the distance of most subjects I’d shoot with that particular lens. For example: at 200mm, I focused on the tree across the road about 300 feet away, and for my 35mm, I focused on a bench about 10 feet away. Normal working ranges for me at those focal lengths. Then I magnified Live View 5X or 10X, and manually focused until the details were as sharp as I could get them. Next I flipped the lens’ AF switch and half-pressed the shutter while carefully watching the distance scale on the lens. If it moved, I entered an adjustment.
Eventually, I got all my lenses not to move at all from the sharpest I could get using magnified manual focus. Now I am getting the sharpest images I ever have with my 70-200, thanks to a minus 15 micro-focus adjustment. Just to put that in perspective, -20 is the farthest you can go, and my other lenses needed only +/- 3 MFA or less. But look at those buildings! Very sharp. Great optics, but a poorly aligned AF motor.
Another secret for sharp hand-held images: My shutter speed was set to 1/500 sec. The basic rule is to set your shutter speed at, or higher than, your focal length. So at 200mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/250. I went a little faster because it was breezy and I know, even bracing my elbows on the fence, I can’t keep the camera completely still. If I have to raise my ISO to get a high enough shutter speed, I do it! Sharp but grainy photos are more usable than smooth but soft, blurred photos, and software noise reduction actually works surprisingly well.
Here is a crazy bi-color filter on one of the photos I took. Now that I look at it inserted into the post, it looks like I jammed a sunset city and mid-afternoon water together in Photoshop, but it really is one photo. Sometimes it’s fun to just experiment and not be too stuck on “realistic”.
This is a shot from earlier the same day at Discovery Park north of downtown Seattle. I normally don’t like borders but once it awhile I think it can add to the photo. If you look at the horizon line just to the right of the mountain, that’s where I went to shoot the other photos in this post. I used my EF 35mm f/2 lens for this photo at f/13, trying to keep everything in focus from near to far.
I hope you like the photos, and if you have an EOS dSLR and think your lenses might not be autofocusing precisely, this may give you some ideas.
Here are a couple lessons I’ve learned about photography. This first one took me longer to learn than it should have. If you only shoot when it’s convenient – when you’re already there for another purpose, then you’ll only get tourist quality photos. If you choose the time and place ahead of time and go there for the purpose of capturing good photography, you’ll get much better results. It’s not convenient to drive or hike somewhere just to take pictures, especially if you have a busy, demanding life and a family. But I am learning that if I find the time, I am rewarded.
Second, time of day matters! In this post:
I was shooting in the same location, much earlier in the day. This time I went during the short window of daylight after I got off work on a weekday. You get much more pleasing results just before the sun goes down! And it was just my luck I arrived at high tide.
One more thing I am learning is to read the sky. As I go about my daily business, I watch to see if the sky would yield interesting results in a photograph. This evening when I was driving home from work and saw the sky, I knew I had to grab my camera bag and tripod and run to the nearest scenic location. Fall weather in western Washington most often looks like the photos from my Cape Disappointment posts – very grey and overcast. But cloudless blue skies are not much better. I had a great sky that evening though!
I was using my new B+W MRC F-Pro circular polarizer. I had been looking for a better quality polarizer for a few months. They are usually $120 to $150, which is a lot of money for a filter if you’re not a pro, even if it does rotate to make its effect more or less intense. But I found a used one in like-new condition for only $75. From my own observation, the more expensive and higher quality B+W has a more natural polarizing affect, and it doesn’t soften images the way my cheaper Tiffen CP filter did.
The problem with using any polarizer on a very wide angle lens, like my 17mm, is that you get dark and light areas in your sky (see above).
In the original RAW file, the bottom half of this photo is almost black. Amazing how much detail was hiding there! But after my Lightroom adjustments, the leaves were still dull. NIK Color Efex Pro 4 helped me bring out their color with its Brilliance/Warmth tool. This is probably a good time to add that most photos I edit with the Color Efex plugin get a treatment with the Pro Contrast tool. It is flat amazing what it can do to images all by itself!
The only bad thing about my timing that evening was that someone in the area was burning something and it was hazy and smokey out over the Sound. Editing cleared up most of it, but you can see the smoke along the horizon line. But I still pleased with the photos I got.
I think I overcooked this one. It was pretty dark, and when you try to lighten up a photo that much and then apply contrast as much as I did, the results won’t be the best. I just can’t seem to resist going for that saturated, high contrast look. Ah well, this is art, right? I have creative license to edit my photos until they look like a fresco painting if I want to.
Thanks for looking. Have a great day!