Does the Sunny 16 Rule Really Work?

I’m starting the new year going back to the basics of photography — the “sunny 16 rule” to be specific. Does the sunny 16 rule still work across modern digital cameras?

About Sunny 16

If you don’t know the sunny 16 rule, you’re missing what might be the easiest and fastest way to get exact exposure on a sunlit subject without metering anything. The rule states that on a sunny day, you should be able to set the shutter speed to 1/ISO, choose f/16 and get a perfectly exposed negative. For example, you could set the camera to ISO 200, shutter speed 1/200 and aperture at f/16; or ISO 400, 1/400 and f/16 — any lens, any camera.

Photographer Tony Corbell recently sparked new interest in this rule during a CreativeLive workshop in late 2013 when he stated that you could calibrate a hand-held meter by using the sunny 16 rule and pointing the meter at the sun and seeing if it read f/16. If it were off, you could adjust it until it read 16.0.

So, is it true? Does this old rule still work with new technology? Of course it does, but to satisfy the non-believers, I went out and tested it for myself so I could show you the results.

Testing Sunny 16

First I set my Nikon D300 to ISO 200, 1/200 and f/16 and took some pictures. There happened to be snow during my test, which would have been a challenging scene to meter through the camera, but my exposure was perfect. Using the law of reciprocity, you can alter the sunny 16 settings to get whatever exposure you want, so ISO 200, 1/200 at f/16 is the same as ISO 100, 1/100 at f/16.

I then set my Sekonic L-758 meter to ISO 200, 1/200 and pointed the dome at the sun. Sure enough, the meter read f/16.1. When I tested it again, it bounced a bit between 16.1 and 16.0, which I chalked up to user error in pointing it exactly. So I concluded indeed the rule is true and my meter is calibrated correctly.

As further evidence, I wanted to show you exactly how the images appeared in Lightroom so you can see the settings and histograms. Due to these being screen shots of the files, and differences in monitors, the color and exposure may not appear to be accurate, but look at the settings and trust the histogram. They’re accurate.

Also, I used auto white balance unintentionally because I forgot to change it to daylight, which I would normally use in full sun. Nevertheless, the data shows I used the sunny 16 rule and the histograms (the graphs in the upper right) show that the negatives are exposed properly and contain all of the detail in the scene, without any exposure adjustments in software.

In the last image you’ll notice some of the shadows are showing clipped in the histogram. That tells me the scene might have been outside of the dynamic range of the camera. You’ll also note that the histogram trails almost to the right edge, meaning there’s still plenty of detail in the highlights. I could have bumped the exposure up a third in camera to push the histogram to the right, and I often practice shooting to the right, but the sunny 16 rule still works, and if I were to bump exposure as a rule, I would have overexposed the other scenes by not trusting sunny 16, especially dangerous if you shoot JPEG.

Sunny 16 test results

For your enjoyment, here are the files from camera with just basic color and lens corrections, no exposure adjustments.

This rule is incredibly handy and it’s not a matter of guessing. It works because the sun is the same brightness most of the day, and the sun is almost exactly the same distance from the Earth most of the time. If brightness and distance don’t change, neither will exposure, and the light falloff between the sun and Earth is so great that any changes in distance due to orbit don’t affect sunny 16.

No matter where you go or where you point the camera, as long as the subject is lit in full sun you can use this rule. It’s like having an incident meter in your head! Just remember that filters will cut light so you’ll need to compensate. When the sun is 20 degrees above the horizon and full, not clouded or overcast, it will work, and any discrepancy is the result of equipment or human error.

With knowledge of the exposure triangle and law of reciprocity, you can manipulate the rule to suit your exact shutter speed and aperture needs. For example, when I’m making portraits of a bride and groom outdoors on a sunny day, I’ll know that 1/1600 and f/4 at ISO 100 will give me the same exposure as 1/100 @ f/16. It’s simply opening up the aperture four stops and speeding up the shutter four stops, so the exposure doesn’t change. What changes is my depth of field, which is my primary storytelling tool. I generally use f/4 or wider when photographing a wedding.

Let’s say I don’t want f/4 and I want 5.6 instead. That’s one stop. So if I close the aperture one stop, I must slow the shutter one stop to 1/800 so the light recorded is the same, so the correct exposure becomes ISO 100, 1/800 at f/5.6. It doesn’t matter if it’s a wedding, vacation, sports game or family portrait; sunny 16 gives you the correct exposure for a sunny day. Why fiddle around with matrix guessing, reflective metering and exposure compensation when you can just dial in the exact correct exposure instantly and make every shot under the same light consistent?

You can, technically, rely on the rule with matrix metering, but using the camera’s meter with the sunny 16 rule defeats the purpose and adds extra steps to making a picture. Under a given light source, the correct exposure is constant and doesn’t change. The trick is knowing the correct exposure for that light. Once you do, you can lock it in and there’s no need to re-meter. The sunny 16 rule gives you that exposure for daylight. Matrix metering is meant for situations in which you don’t know the exposure and need a quick way to find it. If, for example, the camera’s meter tells you the correct exposure with an aperture of f/16 @ ISO 200 is 1/800, you know to open up two stops with exposure compensation, but that’s a calculation you’d have to make and an unnecessary step since the rule tells you that 1/200 is the correct shutter speed to start with.

sunny 16 rule

Sunny 16 and auto exposure

While you can use the sunny 16 rule in automated exposure modes if you understand exposure compensation — which defeats the purpose — you cannot verify the sunny 16 rule with the camera’s meter alone. Some people have tried to test sunny 16 by using matrix metering and a programmed exposure mode. They go out to a sunny scene, expecting the camera to come up with settings that satisfied the rule. That won’t work because the camera is metering luminance, or the light reflected off of objects and ignores illuminance, or the light falling on objects — two different things. The light that reflects off of objects is different depending on the object, so it causes the camera’s meter to constantly change. Sunny 16 is an exposure for the light that falls on objects and anything under that light will render with appropriate tonality with the correct exposure. If you want to verify the sunny 16 rule with a meter, you must use an incident meter, not a reflective meter.

There’s one way to verify it with your camera, other than make an exposure at sunny 16 settings. It involves a gray card. Set the ISO and then pick a shutter speed of 1/ISO; fill the frame with a gray card illuminated in full sun, and see if the camera reads f/16. If it doesn’t, it’s possible the camera meter or gray card is slightly off, or the card is lit improperly.

Of course sunny 16 isn’t for everything and there are creative reasons for breaking away from it. If your subject is in shade, obviously the rule will render the subject darker than daylight, but that doesn’t work creatively if you want the subject to look “normal.” In that case you would use an incident meter in the shade or meter off of the face to expose the subject to appear normal. The rule is for outdoors on a sunny day only.

Photography rules do work! Feel free to use this rule to calibrate your incident meter. Whatever the meter is reading, dial in the opposite until it reads f/16 exactly. Photography is most fun when you go out and do it. In fact, what I’ve been doing is outlining a guide for how you can try this yourself. Also, using the sunny 16 rule will help you understand light, the exposure triangle and manual exposure. Go out and experiment with sunny 16, and have fun.

Hawaiian Shirt and Leaf Abstracts

colored glass closeup abstract

In trying to keep up with all of my self-imposed photographic obligations, I made some abstract works for the local camera club to show at the August meeting. I’ll share the details and how I made the images.

“Abstract” is defined in Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus as “Achieving its effect by shapes and colors rather than by realism” and “extract, remove.” To make these abstracts, I wanted to find a macro subject that lent shapes, colors and forms for me to extract into art.

Remembering an idea about shooting through other materials, I decided to look for translucent objects that I could place color behind and then shoot through. I found a Glenlivet drinking glass that had an ornate bottom, which when viewed through a macro lens was full of crystalline patterns. I set the glass on top of a Hawaiian shirt that had colors I liked, specifically warm and cool colors that would contrast and direct the eye.

colored glass closeup abstract
The view is so close that you can actually see the thread pattern of the shirt under the glass, which looks like a checkered pattern, in some parts of the image.

I lit the subject with an off-camera LED light. I turned the camera to live view, the first time I’d ever used that mode to shoot, so I could rotate the glass and move the light to find the design I wanted on the LCD without having to waste frames or strain to look through the viewfinder. I don’t use live view in general, but this is the type of photograph it’s made for. I shot until the battery died, which wasn’t long with continuous live view. I managed to make about 30 frames and selected the best three for finishing.

colored glass abstract setup
I removed the center pole of the tripod and turned it upside down to get the camera into position. I also set shutter delay mode and triggered from the MC-36 remote release set to a five-second delay to eliminate any vibrations during this extreme closeup. You can see a total of three extension tubes on the 50 mm. I almost had to touch the glass to focus on it.

This exercise was educational because I discovered that, at least for me, shape and detail in an image seem to take precedent over color. I know that the eye goes to warm colors first, but I also see that it prefers detail over color and the balance between the importance of shape and color is delicate. What this means is no matter how hot or attractive a color is, the eye prefers to examine a detailed area foremost.

I rotated two of the images for two distinct compositions. Take a look.

hawaiian shirt colored glass abstract

hawaiian shirt colored glass abstract

For another abstract subject, I chose a maple leaf from our tree in the front yard. Again I rigged a macro platform with my versatile Manfrotto tripod. I used the built-in level to level the legs and then removed the center column and placed it sideways, which enabled me to use the column as a sliding macro rail to adjust focus. If you do a lot of macro photography, I’d recommend investing in a macro rail or bellows, which allow for smoother, finer movements. The versatility of the ball head enables me to position the camera correctly regardless of the orientation of the center pole. The goal is to get the sensor plane as parallel with the subject as possible for sharp detail.

To hold the leaf, I turned to the Plamp, a flexible clamp system. Again I used the LED to illuminate the subject from behind, bringing out the fine textures of the leaf.

maple leaf closeup tripod rig
It really pays to invest in a quality tripod. The Manfrotto 055MF3, though now old, is a tremendously versatile rig for anything up to a DSLR with 200 mm lens. Buying one piece of equipment that will last 20 or 30 years is much better than buying the same cheap piece of equipment every two years. How did I get such soft, pleasing lighting using on-camera flash without casting a harsh shadow in the blinds immediately behind the rig? Ceiling bounce.
maple leaf closeup spot color
I decided showing the leaf in color was too literal for my abstract goal, so I changed it to black and white and enhanced the detail and contrast in post.
maple leaf closeup red
Above, some colorizing and layer blending in Photoshop CS6 helped me create the effect of blood filling the vessels of the leaves. The effect isn’t as complicated to accomplish as it looks. 

Takeaway lessons

  • Live view is incredibly helpful in macro shooting or when the camera is in positions that make looking through the viewfinder awkward.
  • Detail has greater control over the eye than color.
  • Shape is contrast.
  • Rotate abstract images for drastically different compositions.
  • Be resourceful with the equipment you have.

Best Wedding Schedule for Photography

emotionally engaging pictures meadow yellow wildflowers

Having the time for the photos you want is easy if your photographer works with you to provide a custom wedding schedule that allows for those images. Without a good schedule, you’ll easily become overstressed and miss those important pictures.

Photographer-client disconnect

Not every studio helps create an effective wedding schedule for photography, and sometimes the result is sacrificing amazing pictures to stay on time, or it could mean getting the pictures you want at the cost of setting back other events significantly or even skipping them.

Specifically, scheduling and most wedding photography problems are the result of Photographer-Client Disconnect, a syndrome typical of studios that put someone like a consultant between you and your artist, or when a photographer simply doesn’t have the expertise or inclination to help. If you don’t work directly with your photographer, things like being an hour late for dinner are common.

Wedding schedule solutions

Work directly with your photographer

Only your specific photographer knows the time he needs to make the pictures you want. Only your photographer knows how much time to schedule for pictures.

Many brides turn to the Internet or Facebook groups for solutions. While this is tempting, it’s random and mostly useless. Your locations, travel times, party size and photographer will probably all be different. Other people’s schedules won’t necessarily apply at all.

For example, you might set aside 30 minutes for pictures of the groom getting ready because that’s what “everybody does” and it “worked” for them. But what if the groom is 30 minutes late? It happened with one of my clients. Had we not scheduled at least an hour, they would have lost all of their groom prep portraits. I had actually asked for 1.5 hours, partly because that’s the ideal amount of time for me specifically, partly to provide a window of breathing room for delays and relaxation, which we needed.

Even wedding planners don’t know exactly how much time you need to schedule for photography. They can provide educated guesses based on experiences, but they’re not the photographer. Allotting a certain time for pictures and forcing photography to fit in that time doesn’t work. It may keep you on schedule, but it may also be unrealistic for the photographer you hired. Don’t invest in a professional and then cut his legs off. Give your photographer the time he needs.

Hire experience

A photographer worth your investment will go beyond the basic requirements of the contract in planning and support in designing the portraits of your dreams. He’ll also be able to take charge when necessary to create images on schedule while respecting you and guests.

An experienced photographer will help you avoid hidden delays you wouldn’t think of. Unloading and loading transportation. Maid of honor can’t find her bouquet. Grandma wandered off before family portraits. You need to build in time for all of that.

A professional will also let you know when your wedding schedule conflicts with the photography you want. For example, one of my couples had booked 2 hours with their limo. They asked me if they should add another hour for bridal party pictures. It’s uncomfortable having to weigh in on whether a couple should spend more money on their wedding, but I gave them an honest answer. I said they would have enough time for one preferred location but probably not two or three. Having arrived a day early, I was able to spend it working out the finer details of the locations and travel times. I also said no couple ever said they had too much time for pictures.

The couple booked another hour with the limo. Even though family pictures were delayed, they got fantastic portraits at two locations without having to feel rushed.

sturgeon bay wedding

Summary

Photographers aren’t superhuman. They can only work with what they have, and if there’s not enough time, it’ll affect photography. By working with your photographer in advance, you can avoid problems and make sure you get the photos and service you’re expecting.

For an even more memorable experience, hire a wedding planner/producer to coordinate your entire wedding day. Not only can your producer help you choose vendors and coordinate your schedule but he can find ways to save money you may not have thought of. Experienced producers like Brian Kelm Productions, master of ceremonies, can bring a lot of value to anyone looking for a memorable, standout wedding.

The important thing is it’s the photographer’s job, in coordination with other vendors, to make sure the wedding schedule allows for the photography you want. When you invest in a trained professional, expect a higher level of service and better results. It’s worth your investment!

Connect with me now to get started!

Download my Wedding Photography Guide.

Download my Scheduling Tips.

Getting Ready Pictures, Should You Do Them?

Are you on the fence about including getting ready pictures in your wedding photography plan? Here’s why they’re a good idea and what you might miss out on if you don’t get them.

bride getting ready beauty
A beauty shot of the bride’s fresh hair and makeup during getting ready coverage.

Top 5 reasons to do getting ready pictures

  1. Getting ready pictures are valuable because they help tell a complete story of your day. They’ll also include some of the most beautifully lit and directed as well as candid photos of the day. It can minimize group portrait time after the ceremony, as that’s typically best reserved for group shots featuring the bride and groom united.
  2. Include the guys. It’s a big day for the groom too! This is the best chance to get those dramatic solo shots of the groom looking his freshest in that handsome outfit, as well as with family and friends. Without this coverage, the album may feel like it’s missing a piece of the story.
  3. Schedule preparations so that the girls and guys get ready at separate times. It’s best to get the guys’ preparations out of the way first. Then the photographer can focus on the beautiful bride. Proper scheduling lessens the need for a second photographer to cover simultaneous events. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t need a second photographer. It’s best to discuss your schedule and needs with your photographer before you book.
  4. Hair and makeup time is great for candids of the bride with her bridesmaids, and a few highlights as she get her lips and eyes done. Girls won’t want too many shots of themselves with unfinished hair and makeup in an album. If your schedule is tight, skip hair and makeup pictures and do the guys’ coverage.
  5. Every photographer does prep coverage differently. Set up a complimentary planning session, if your photographer offers one, and understand whether this coverage is included. Discuss the benefits of it and address any questions or concerns you may have.

Joel Nisleit Photography provides full wedding coverage from preparations to reception included with every collection. Joel is a wedding photographer providing romantic, stylish, natural photography with a designer flair throughout Madison, Milwaukee and all of Southeast Wisconsin. Check availability and pricing here.

What Adobe Creative Cloud Means for Photographers

Adobe Creative Cloud (Adobe CC) is likely here to stay. So you might as well see what it means for you and how it works. I recently took a course on the subject at CreativeLive.com and took the following notes.

Updated as of December 2017: Adobe CC offers a photography plan, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom together, for $9.99 per month.

Facts to consider

  • Doesn’t run over Internet; installs locally
  • Documents saved locally, cloud optional
  • Share files even with those who don’t have CC membership
  • No automatic updates; notifications only
  • Software must connect every 30 days to verify subscription on month-to-month subscription
  • Annual contract must connect every 99 days

Pros

  • Fewer new features coming more frequently, rather than major updates released infrequently
  • Sync settings across devices (not very useful yet)
  • One subscription works on Mac and Windows
  • Access to more programs for the same price
  • Don’t have to depreciate software on taxes when renting, can deduct whole amount per month

Adobe Creative Cloud Pricing

Full CC suite

  • $50/month for 30 apps, for one year contract
  • $30/month annual contract if you own CS3-CS5, but price will return to $50 on Aug 1, 2014
  • $20/month annual contract if you own CS6, but price will return to full on Aug 1, 2014
  • $75 per month, no contract

Single app

  • $20/month per app with annual contract
  • $10 if you own CS6, price returns to full in 2014
  • $30/month no contract

The way it works out is if you plan to use 2.5 programs or more, so essentially three, you’re better off with the full suite. If you plan to use only one app, or Lightroom plus Photoshop, the single app plan is better, in which case you would subscribe to Photoshop for $20/month with an annual contract and buy the stand-alone LR. LR is not available as single app subscription as of August 2013.

The single app annual contract cost for CS6 would be $240, about the same as a CS upgrade. This is good if you regularly upgrade software. I, however, like to buy software and sit on it for a few years before investing in an upgrade, so I’ll be keeping my CS6 as long as it works and as long as there are no major compelling new features. When it’s time to upgrade, I’ll probably take the single app subscription to CS and upgrade LR separately. If you use all 30 programs, certainly the full suite is a deal.

Advantages of Shooting Raw vs. JPEG

While most pros have decided one way or another on the topic of raw vs. JPEG, these formats of digital photography capture are still a mystery to most amateurs and there’s a lot of blind leading the blind out there.

There’s no right or wrong answer to which format you should shoot, except what’s the most effective for you and best fit for your desired result, but I hope to provide some compelling evidence to shoot raw, at least if you’re serious about getting the most out of your camera and digital files.

Did you know JPEG files sacrifice up to 80% of the original captured information, or that the shadow areas in raw files contain more levels of tonal information per pixel than the tonal range of an entire JPEG file?

The science is clear that raw files contain far more information and flexibility than JPEGs, and new software has rendered the old challenges of processing raw completely moot, as now anyone can get the software necessary to manipulate raw files with virtually the same ease as JPEGs.

I suggest you learn as much as you can about each format before you choose. The more you know, the less susceptible you’ll be to the rampant myths and misinformation there is about either file type.

To be clear, my focus is mainly on the formats as used in digital capture. What other uses they have are generally not covered, though I touch briefly on formats used for printing.

If you’re just shooting snapshots of the kids and sending them to grandma, raw is probably not for you and you don’t need to read any further. But if you have any desire to get the most out of your images and the expensive sensor you paid for, you owe it to yourself to explore the differences between raw and JPEG.

Without raw, I could never have developed this image as you see it.

raw file example lake michigan lighthouse
Waves crash on the shore of Lake Michigan on the north side of Sheboygan, Wisconsin with the red lighthouse in the background. An example of a picture developed from a raw file.

About Raw

Raw is simply an unprocessed proprietary camera file, much like a film negative. It contains all of the information captured from the sensor accompanied by a file containing information about the image that requires a software program, like Adobe Lightroom, to interpret and export to a finished file, much like a lab would process a negative into a print.

This is where the flexibility and power of raw lives, its “rawness” and ability to be processed and developed to your taste — like a negative — and not the camera’s tastes (like JPEG). The only settings that affect the recorded pixels of a raw image are ISO, shutter speed and aperture, according to Bruce Fraser, author of “Understanding Digital raw Capture” for Adobe.

Non-exposure settings, such as white balance, contrast, saturation, tone curves, color space, noise reduction and sharpening, ride side-car to the original sensor information in the form of an XMP file and are loaded into the raw editor for you to see as a preview. On the camera LCD, they’re loaded specifically as a JPEG preview. Processing software, such as Lightroom, enables you to make development adjustments to the side-car information. Changes aren’t actually applied until you convert the raw file into something else, like JPEG or TIFF.

To further get a sense of what raw is, recall that in film you can leave a set of instructions with your negatives and have a lab make prints according to those instructions. You can always go back to the negative with different instructions and make a new print because the adjustments affect only the print, not the negative. Light is simply passed through the negative onto the print paper.

The side-car information “stapled” to the raw file is like the set of instructions for how to process a film negative. A program like Lightroom looks at those instructions and renders a preview — or copy, if you specify — of the image, but the original file is never touched. In fact, you can never actually edit a raw file. You can only edit the information about it. That means you can keep changing it without affecting the quality of the original file. This helped earn raw the nickname of digital negative.

Is Lightroom the only way to process raw files? No, there are many other programs, including Photoshop, Aperture and CaptureOne.

Another reason raw files are similar to film negatives is because of their tonal range. Raw files contain at least 4,096 levels of tonal information in each pixel. This means a greater range of tonalities to work with. Raw files that are 14-bit contain 16,384 levels. By comparison, JPEG files contain a total of only 256 — that’s right just 256 — levels of tonal information per pixel, almost no latitude compared to raw.

The greater bit depth of raw means each pixel has more levels of tonal information to play with — much more. You have the ability to move the negative around — to bring detail out of bright highlights or deep shadows, for example — until you achieve just what you want.

One of the most famous photographers ever — if not the most famous — is known for his extensive work in developing film negatives in the darkroom, involving clinical filtering, dodging, burning and other techniques used to develop film negatives into prints that helped make photography into a widely-accepted form of fine art. His name is Ansel Adams. It’s no leap to imagine that if Adams were alive today and shooting digital, he’d relish if not prefer the information-rich raw files of today’s digital cameras over JPEG.

Advantages of Raw

  • Original file is never degraded. Adjustments simply travel with the raw file and are never directly applied.
  • Processing settings, such as white balance, sharpness, noise reduction, tonal curves and color space are not applied at capture, so you can change them however you want in post processing. You, not the camera, are in total control over development.
  • More exposure latitude, meaning you can adjust more stops up and down without significant degradation.
  • Original file is 12-bit or 14-bit, containing 4,096 to 16,384 tonal values per pixel — 65,536 for 16-bit files. This means finer detail, especially in highlights, shadows and tonal transitions, and more dynamic range. The shadows in a raw file alone contain as many brightness steps as an entire JPEG image.
  • Processes just as easily as JPEG with the right software.
  • Finest image quality worthy of the largest prints.
  • You can apply camera color profiles that precisely restore and correct colors for a given spectrum of light to any raw file at any time.

Disadvantages of Raw

  • Requires special software to process and in some cases view.
  • File is larger.
  • File takes longer to process in-camera, can be very slow on pocket cameras.

About JPEG

If the sensor is one of the reasons you paid so much for your camera, you might not like the facts about JPEG.

When you take a JPEG photo, rather than retaining all of the information from the sensor, the camera makes certain decisions regarding things like white balance, contrast, even sharpening, then bakes them into the file and discards all of the other data — about 80 percent of it, according to some calculations. There’s not much original sensor information left in a JPEG. The camera then compresses the finished image into a format that almost any computer can read. Every JPEG that comes out of the camera is done: 400 degrees, three hours, dry as a goose, stick a fork in it.

As Fraser put it:

“When you shoot JPEG, you’re trusting the camera’s built-in raw converter to throw away a large amount of the captured data in a way that will hopefully do the image justice. This is exacerbated by the tendency of most camera vendors to impose a fairly steep contrast curve in the raw-to-JPEG conversion in an effort to produce a JPEG that resembles a transparency. In the process, they throw away about a stop of usable dynamic range, and you have essentially no control over what gets discarded.”

If raw is a digital negative, think of JPEG as a digital slide. The main difference is with digital, raw gives you the ability to further refine sharpness and noise, something not possible with film. If raw is writing in pencil, JPEG is writing in pen. Editing a JPEG is like trying to manipulate a painting that’s already dried.

A JPEG file that comes out of the camera is already the second generation of the original sensor information, and when you make even the slightest edits to that JPEG in any program, Lightroom or otherwise, the output becomes the third generation. With raw, the first-generation information is retained from camera, and any changes you export from the raw file are only the second generation, and you can make as many second generations as you want from the same raw file.

More JPEG Limitations

If you’re thinking the non-destructive editing of Lightroom saves the day, understand that Lightroom makes non-destructive edits only in the sense that what you see is a preview, but when you export the changes, which is necessary for anyone else to see them on say a Web page or print, Lightroom still must render the changes onto an already-processed JPEG that doesn’t have nearly the latitude of a raw file.

“JPEGs offer fairly limited editing headroom—large moves to tone and color tend to exaggerate the 8-by-8-pixel blocks that form the foundation of JPEG compression—and while JPEG does a decent job of preserving luminance data, it applies heavy compression to the color data, which can lead to issues with skin tones and gentle gradations when you try to edit the JPEG,” says Fraser.

Remember that raw pixels have a lot of depth of information — thousands of levels. You could “flip through” those levels to bring out just the detail you want. JPEG has 256 levels of tonal information, not thousands. There’s a teeny tiny bit of leeway for you to make some edits without highly noticeable degradation, but not much.

JPEG is still a good file, when it’s exported from a quality raw file or when it requires almost no post processing. But contrary to what you might think, generally all images require processing to get to a professional standard. When you work with raw, you have to output most images as JPEGs so labs and computers can read them. A JPEG contains enough information to make a fine print. I for one covert all my raw files to JPEG for finished products so they can be displayed on the Web and on clients’ computers because JPEG is high quality and portable. But it offers less latitude for processing. I do all my work on the raw file, where I have full flexibility and quality, and then compress into a JPEG.

Advantages of JPEG

  • Faster processing, since the settings are final and baked in at the moment of capture.
  • Smaller files for more economical storage.
  • Requires no processing or conversion to view. This makes it a fast solution for proofing and increases compatibility with devices.
  • Still has minor development latitude.
  • Quality worthy of large prints.

Disadvantages

  • All edits degrade the image in some way.
  • Discards about 80 percent of the original sensor information.
  • Image is captured as a final product, with limited development latitude.
  • Original JPEG file is 8-bit, containing only 256 steps of brightness from white to black, compared to raw’s 4,096. This means less available detail in shadows and less dynamic range.

Summary

Photographers tell me this same story all the time: “If I go out and shoot a perfect JPEG and get it exactly how I want it in camera, with great exposure, great light, great color and contrast, why do I need raw?”

Good question, and the answer is simple: “Perfect” negatives don’t negate the qualities of raw. Yes, you got that one shot, maybe 90 to 100% perfect, but what happens 10 years later when you want to go back to that shot and reinterpret it? The JPEG discarded up to 80% of the original sensor information and you have almost no latitude to adjust color or tonality without seriously degrading the image. With raw, there’d be virtually no limit to what you could do with the file, and new software unlocks more raw file potential every few years.

Also, while the JPEG you shot yesterday may stack up well among files from today’s cameras, it won’t against even JPEGs 10 years from now. But raw will continually benefit from advancements in processing that extract more and more information out of the same file.

I know this story too well first hand. In the early years of digital, I shot mostly JPEG because there wasn’t a practical raw editing system like the tools available now, and I didn’t really understand the benefits of raw. I shot in fantastic locations like Alaska. Thank God I shot a few raw frames of Mt. McKinley, but sometimes I still kick myself for shooting mostly JPEG. I can’t go back and apply new developing tools and techniques, like color profiling. I can’t play with as much dynamic range or bring out as fine of details. There’s simply nothing you can do to manipulate a JPEG without damaging the original file.

With the wealth of tools today and the techniques I know, I could do so much better processing my old files if they were RAW. This is one of the main reasons I’ll never rely on JPEG again. There’s just too little potential for the file.

“JPEGs are relatively inflexible files — we may see improvements in their handling, but any such improvements are likely to be modest. Raw converters, however, have undergone radical improvements…and there’s little reason to think that the next 10 years won’t see similar improvements. Shooting raw will allow you to exploit these improvements as and when they happen,” Fraser adds.

Does that mean you “need” raw? I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a choice and a different approach to shooting — one in which the camera makes the developing decisions (JPEG), or one in which you do (raw).

If you’re just a pocket snap-shooter, you can stick with JPEG. If you don’t understand photography and simply don’t care, raw is only going to unnecessarily complicate your workflow, if you have one. JPEG requires no processing and is easily read on any device. Also, your camera will shoot faster on JPEG than raw.

Myths

People love to argue that you can’t see any difference in a print. That may be true on a dot-for-dot level. To print, you must compress the raw into a JPEG, reducing it from 14 or 12 bits to 8.

Others claim you can’t see a difference on screen, that you can never fully use the color depth or dynamic range. That’s not true. While you may not see the differences with your eyes, they’re still real in the file.

Seeing all of the raw information at once has never been the point of shooting raw. Raw gives you a lot more information to play with and thus more development potential, more than JPEG allows, to achieve the best version of the file possible, which in turn makes it possible to create a print that better meets your vision, even if the dot-for-dot quality is the same on screen and in print.

The purpose of shooting raw is not so you can fix mistakes later. Taking that approach immediately degrades your photography because you don’t care about the quality of the original capture. If you’re off by even a half stop or more on exposure, correcting it in raw will still introduce noise that will take work to remove.

The true purpose of raw, in my opinion, is to put the most quality possible into the original image, giving you the highest quality of information to work with, thereby increasing the ability to generate a better final image. A bad exposure in RAW is still just a bad exposure. You simply have more latitude for editing it, but not enough to restore detail or light not captured.

There are other phony reasons for not liking raw. One is the idea that it’s more work. With programs like Lightroom that read raw just as easily as JPEG, there’s nothing inherent to the raw file that takes significantly more effort to process — more time in some instances, maybe, but the simple adjustments like sharpening and noise reduction, which are likely to be the same across large groups of images, can be batch applied as the images are imported from the memory card. Simple corrections of white balance and color in raw can take painstaking efforts to reproduce in JPEG and will most likely degrade the image.

The most work I remember ever putting into a file was trying to nuance a nice black-and-white version out of a color JPEG without degrading the original file. I did extensive clinical dodging and burning in various parts of the mountain scene. Had the file been raw, I could have accomplished the same thing with Nik Silver Efex and brushes in Lightroom in a fraction of the time, and it would’ve been non-destructive.

Having a “perfect” negative doesn’t negate any qualities of raw. Adams, who literally wrote the book on negatives, was a stickler for processing perfect negatives into perfect prints, usually through extensive darkroom techniques. He wasn’t known for shooting slides or printing unprocessed negatives, nor is it likely he’d recommend it. As much art lies in the development of an image as it does in the capture. More development potential has never hurt any file that I’ve known.

Said Adams, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”

If you’d like to learn more about how to use raw, please contact me for one-on-one learning.

Camera raw example
This is the straight out of camera raw file of the picture at the top of the article. If I had to pull enough information out of this as a JPEG to get the finished result that you see at the top of the page, the file would’ve been destroyed. There would’ve been unrecoverable noise, banding and color shifts, and it would’ve been a lot more work. The raw contained the information I needed to develop the image as I wanted. If this had been a JPEG, this image would’ve come out of the camera as a compressed finished product with only 256 steps of brightness. Every adjustment on top of that would’ve been destructive.

References

Adobe: Understanding Digital Raw Capture

Cambridge in Colour: Raw File Format

Cambridge in Colour: Image Types: JPEG & TIFF Files

Resources

Ron Day Photography: Perceptible Variance Between Raw and JPEG Images

PocketWizard Flex and Mini vs. Phottix Odin II (Nikon)

Until about 2016, the PocketWizard MiniTT1 transmitter and FlexTT5 transceivers for Nikon put the “Wizard” in PocketWizard, giving you the power to control unlimited Speedlights from practically any distance with little more than your imagination.

However, a few years after getting these units in 2012, I began to experience too many FTFs (failure to fires). I went over the settings several times, upgraded firmware, used manual Plus III slaves and still had inconsistencies to the point where I would lose important shots at weddings.

I can’t explain how the units worked so well the first couple of years after I got them and then inexplicably stopped working, but around 2016 I started seeing many reports of the same stories and frustrations with these units. Perhaps PocketWizard didn’t make them for heavy use, or the frequencies became too flooded with other technologies at wedding venues.

When they came out, the PW Flex and Mini were, I think, the only TTL flash radio system with remote power control (with AC-3 Zone Controller), which was their main appeal to me. As a wedding photographer, I loved having the ability to adjust flash power remotely on all of my lights without an assistant having to manually do it for each light. I also loved having the remote TTL capability for shots I needed to light quickly.

The command dial of the AC-3 was simple, fast and easy. With the physical dials, I could quickly adjust up to three groups on the fly without going into a single menu. However, the dial system wasn’t perfect. Since I wear two cameras at a wedding at all times, I noticed as I let the one with the dial hang by my  hip, occasionally the dials would rub against something and get moved during the action, changing my flash settings. You couldn’t lock in a setting with the dials.

Another thing I didn’t like about the PW Flex/Mini system was that you needed to plug them into a computer any time you wanted to change any settings, and the settings were kind of complicated. I liked the depth of control you could gain over certain functions, like high speed sync, but it also meant you couldn’t change channels on the fly. You were stuck with whatever settings you had programmed at the computer.

On PW, you could reassign groups on the fly, and you could select from two pre-programmed “configurations” of settings, but not channels.

Phottix Odin II

Since the Mini/Flex release, other brands have come out with their own TTL and remote power control systems, and one notable brand who seems to be taking a lot of market share on the high end is Phottix.

I’ve since upgraded (as of 2017) to the Phottix Odin II system, which has TTL and remote power control, and the transmitter/power control is a single unit on the camera, not two like PW.

Initially, I was hesitant to switch to Phottix because, you know, most of the Chinese knock-offs don’t work. But the fact was PW also wasn’t working, so I needed to try something. I had looked at other systems, including Radio Poppers, but what compelled me to try Phottix was that Jerry Ghionis was also using the Odin system. If there’s anyone who needs a flash to work correctly the first time at a wedding, it’s Jerry.

What I loved from the first time I used the Odin II system was that it worked. I turned them on, set my channels, and they worked correctly. It “helps” to turn the flash on before the receiver, but other than that, and turning everything off before connecting/disconnecting, there’s no complicated precise order of turning things on and off. With PW, I had to attach a label with the correct fire-up sequence to my AlienBee, and it still didn’t work.

Advantages over PW are numerous. You can change groups and channels on the fly directly on the units via the LCD menu and buttons. There are one or two more steps to adjusting power with the Odin II, but it’s still fast and the benefit is the settings are locked in until you push a couple of buttons vs. subjected to the random bumps of a physical dial.

You get more groups with the Odin II, up to 5 with compatible receivers. Switching modes is still easy, and the Odin II has a wheel for breezing through the menus and power scales. The wheel was mandatory for me because I need to change settings quickly at weddings.

One thing I don’t like about the Odin units is they require replaceable batteries. This isn’t bad, and regular AA batteries will work fine for a few weddings, but PW had a nice power cable accessory that used the camera’s power (on cameras with 10-pin terminals) for the transmitter so you didn’t have to use any batteries for the transmitter, which was great especially because they were harder-to-find button cells.

I tested the Odin II’s power adjustments against a Sekonic meter and found them to be correct. In other words, 1/3 stop was really 1/3 stop of light, and 1 stop was really one stop of light, so the power output and settings are reliable.

How to Freeze Motion With Flash (High Speed Photography)

Flash is used to freeze motion as an olive is dropped into a martini glass.

Seeing something that moves very fast frozen in a brief moment of time will always be fascinating. It’s like peering into a new world, with new, interesting elements at play. But how to do this well has frustrated beginners and advanced shooters alike.

One method to freeze ultra-fast motion is with the use of manual flash. It requires some setup, but when you understand the principles at play, you can make some amazing images in your own living room with a beginner photo kit.

Overview

Before getting into all the technical details, it will help to have an overview of what we’re trying to achieve. We want a fast-moving subject, like a piece of fruit splashing into a glass of water, to be frozen in time. Achieving the shutter speed necessary to do this is a challenge, especially in low light situations. The solution is to use manual flash. The burst of light from a flash, such as a Speedlight, is ultra-short, between 1/10,000 second and 1/40,000 second for most Speedlights — upward of 1/100,000 second for studio strobes. When flash is contributing 100 percent of the light, its duration becomes the effective shutter speed. The key is getting flash to be the only light in the exposure.

What You’ll Need

  • Two external Speedlights, or one Speedlight and an SLR capable of manual shooting with built-in flash commander mode.
  • Snoot (a flash modifier that funnels light into a beam). If you don’t have a snoot, in a pinch you could wrap some Cinefoil around the flash head so that it funnels the light through a narrow path, maybe slightly wider than the flash head, and just use a rubber band to hold it on.
  • Light stand or support recommended.
  • Something with fast motion to freeze; a common subject is a glass of water with something to drop into it.

Explanation

Ambient light is much lower intensity than flash, so it needs time to burn into the exposure. Indoor ambient light is especially low and usually requires high ISOs, low shutter speeds and wide apertures to record. In other words, you set up the camera to let a lot of light in.

So what would happen if you went the opposite direction and lowered the ISO, sped up the shutter, and cranked down the aperture so it let in much less light? No ambient light would record, and for this experiment that’s exactly what you want. You want a black frame to start with because you’re going to paint in with flash.

Even when you block ambient light from the exposure by closing down the aperture and lowering the ISO, flash is intense enough to record, so it will be the only light in the exposure, which also means its duration becomes the effective shutter speed. Flash is much more intense than ambient light and therefore needs to burn at a much shorter duration on the sensor. You can see just with your eyes how blinding a flash can be. The high intensity burst of flash is such a short duration that it gets burned onto the sensor and turned off in just a fraction of the time it takes for the shutter to open and close. This means it doesn’t matter what the actual shutter speed is; the flash will sneak into the exposure regardless.

To control exposure for the ambient light and flash separately, use the camera in manual mode. Not only does this work for all models, it also makes it easier to control the exposure and show you the effects of exposure control on each light source.

You probably already know aperture controls the opening in the lens and the amount of light coming through it. That means aperture has the power to let in more or less of all light coming through the lens, be it ambient or flash; it’s not time dependent. Closing down the aperture decreases the total light reaching the sensor, while opening it will increase total light. This means the aperture controls the amount of flash getting through the lens.

Since the shutter speed doesn’t matter for the exposure, you can set it to anything that blocks ambient light. However, the firing of the flash must sync with the shutter, or the closing of the shutter may block some of the flash from the exposure, creating a black bar in the image. To prevent this, set the shutter speed to your camera’s sync speed, 1/200 to be safe.

Walkthrough

Set up your stage indoors in average light or even with the lights off. Pick a dark or at least plain background away from light sources. If you’re doing off-camera flash, place your light about 45 degrees from the camera (4 o’clock or 8 o’clock position to subject’s front), making sure the wireless eye, usually indicated by some sort of symbol, has line of sight to the camera. If you have a snoot, place it on the flash and point the flash directly at the subject.

Set the ISO to the lowest number or least sensitivity. Use a light meter or the camera’s meter to get a reading of the ambient light. Set the shutter speed to something no faster than the camera’s sync speed. Then, use a high f-number of at least f/10 to block the rest of the ambient light. The camera should be telling you you’re way underexposed, which is good. You’ll be painting the subject with flash, not ambient light.

Turn all flashes off and take a test shot. With digital, you can tell right away if the image is black. If there’s any detail at all, close down the aperture more and test until you get a completely black image. If you can, increase the shutter speed a bit also.

Now turn the flash on. If you’re using flash on camera, switch the flash to manual mode and go down to 1/32 power. If you’re doing off-camera flash, set the remote flash to remote mode and place another Speedlight or the built-in Speedlight in commander mode, and then adjust power on the remote flash using the commander. If necessary, review the procedure in your camera and flash manuals for using a remote Speedlight with a commander.

Take a test shot without the subject in action. The flash should fire. You can judge the exposure using just the LCD if you want, but a more accurate method is to use a hand-held light meter in flash mode. Simply adjust the exposure by moving the flash power up or down. If you go all the way down and the exposure is still too bright, move the flash further away or close the aperture more.

Compose your image and get the focus correct. Count down and have your assistant drop a strawberry, for example, into the glass of water, and shoot just as it splashes down. It will take several shots to get the timing and splash just right, but all the drops of water will be frozen. Review the exposure and adjust as necessary. The adjustment is unnecessary if you’ve metered the flash and set the camera to the meter’s reading. Shoot until you get exactly what you want.Image

High speed photography of olive dropping into a martini glass.

Using a snoot is essential because it helps direct the light toward the subject so that it really pops out, and it prevents light from spilling onto the background and other parts of the scene, which would create distractions in the final image. Using a light stand also helps in positioning the flash off camera to the side, so light falls off out of frame instead of onto the background.

Summary

With an understanding of flash and basic equipment, you can produce stunning images almost anywhere. Experiment with different flash settings and positions, multiple lights, using the built-in light for added front lighting, or even colored backgrounds. You can use full auto TTL flash, but I find that it often overexposes the subject and is harder to control precisely. With manual mode, you know that each increment is a full stop of brightness.

This experiment not only gives you some cool images but it will help you learn some of the fundamentals of flash. I think you’ll be excited by the results. If you have any questions, please email me.

Check If a Wedding Vendor’s Pictures Are Stolen

As a Wisconsin wedding photographer I believe in showing a good portfolio. But I also suggest a good portfolio isn’t enough to hire a wedding vendor. It’s too easy in the 21st century to steal images, put up a fake website over night and start collecting checks from clients. Check if a vendor’s pictures are stolen before you even contact them.

It’s not just photographers you have to worry about. Anyone — florist, uplighting, caterer, planner — asking for your investment should be able to produce credible examples of her own work, whether a third-party’s pictures used with permission (for non-photographers) or her own pictures.

I’m going to teach you how to identify probable sources of images so you can decide if the person you’re researching is worth your investment. If you think the problem is too rare to affect you, consider that I uncovered two fakers in 2017 in Wisconsin alone and there are thousands of documented cases of these scams. Many will continue to perpetuate the scam even after they’ve been caught and exposed.

Use Google Images

  1. Right-click the suspect image and copy the image’s address or URL.
  2. Open a new browser tab and go to “images.google.com.”
  3. Click the camera icon in the Google Images search bar and click the “Paste Image URL” tab.
  4. Press Ctrl+V to paste the URL, or right-click and click “Paste.”
  5. Press “Go” or “Enter” to search for the image.
  6. Review the results and note any sources of the image other than the one you got the URL from.

Analyzing Results

If you find an image used elsewhere, it’s probably stolen, but there are some other possible explanations.

Stock images

The person may have legally purchased the image from a stock company, in which case he has permission to use the image, maybe even commercially. But does that represent their own work, and why don’t they have real images of their actual work? If they’re charging you money to provide something for your wedding, demand to see real examples of their work, not stock images anyone can download.

Images provided by other vendors

Vendors who don’t normally take pictures, like florists or caterers, may be using images that other photographers or parties have taken of their work. This is OK as long as they have permission, but the wedding industry and especially photographers frown on the use of third-party images without permission.

Stolen images

Often, a vendor’s pictures are stolen outright to represent her own work. This happens not just with photographers but DJs, florists and almost any vendor category. They steal the work of a professional, put up a free website with some generic text and try to book clients. If someone has stolen images, they’re likely running a scam so avoid them. There are plenty of professionals who don’t need to steal to earn your business.

Other ways to check photographers

Thin portfolios

Some photographers use duplicates of the same images cropped differently to make it appear as if they have more images than they actually do. Before hiring a photographer, always ask to see at least two complete wedding galleries or albums so you know the precise level quality and consistency you’re getting for your hard-earned money.

There are no excuses. If they don’t have enough weddings to give you a juicy sample, what have they been doing as a photographer? More importantly, what have they been doing with everyone’s money, and how will they treat yours?

The goal is to know what you’re getting and be comfortable with it — beginner or expert — which is difficult to do without a portfolio that’s fleshed out.

The website Stop Stealing Photos

Stop Stealing Photos is a blog dedicated to exposing image thieves. It compares source images to stolen images and documents the infringement. You can also report someone to Stop Stealing Photos but it’s easier to do via the Facebook page Photo Stealers. Search for your vendor by name. The site rarely lists other vendor categories, however.

Ask challenging questions

If someone is asking a professional fee to perform services at your wedding, you have the right to ask challenging questions that test their experience, knowledge and ability to perform. Ask about how they photograph in challenging light and get examples if possible. Ask about their process, training, procedures, which are all second nature to professionals, even an obsession. Amateurs and scammers will only want to talk about price and deals. They won’t be able to answer difficult questions, which means they won’t be able to handle challenges on your wedding day.

Always ask to see at least two complete wedding galleries or albums, not slideshows as those are only highlights. Anyone can take a few decent shots at a wedding, but a galleries or albums will give you a good idea of a photographer’s consistency and quality throughout the entire day across multiple weddings.

Ask to see your photographer’s Wisconsin tax registration certificate. Photography is a taxable service in Wisconsin and the law requires photographers to charge and collect sales tax. If your photographer doesn’t have a certificate, she’s not a business.

Again, the goal is to know what and whom you’re getting and be comfortable with it, and avoid scammers and cheaters. If you know you’re getting an inexperienced hobbyist who may not meet expectations, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you just assume all photographers are qualified and get the cheapest one, you, like thousands of brides each year in Wisconsin alone, may not get what you intended.

Wisconsin Circuit Court Access

It’s amazing how much trust couples place in random people that about 80 percent of the time they found online. Check Wisconsin Circuit Court Access for all the names of the people involved in your wedding vendor’s business. With larger companies with a physical retail presence, this may not be as much of a concern, but it never hurts to check. It’s rare that anyone scams couples only once. WCCA will tell you if a person has a history of judgements against them. Also check the BBB.

What to do if you verify a vendor’s pictures are stolen

Report the stolen images to the original photographer if possible and use your best judgement in hiring a vendor. Any vendor who’s asking you to pay professional prices for services should be able to provide many examples of their own work, not images they’ve stolen, purchased or used without permission or credit.

If you see any dishonest use of images, dismissive behavior (not answering calls or emails/not responding to requests), or anything that feels unprofessional, take it as a full indication of what you can expect on and after your wedding day.

Remember, there are no regulations on who can be a florist, videographer, DJ, caterer, photographer or planner, and your only recourse is with the vendor or small claims court. It’s your job to vet your vendors thoroughly.