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Two Choices in Low Light Photography: Stabilization or Noise

When the sun goes down and light grows dim the choices for photography become limited. They include either camera stabilization for long exposures or an increase in light sensitivity to allow hand holding. The best solution is a tripod, but one is not always available. Sometimes a tripod is prohibited or cannot be used. A small tripod alternative like HandlePod will work if there is a solid object available to support it. The least reliable solution is to hold the camera body against a support object, but this is often difficult and not very firm.

Increased ISO Means More Noise

The other choice is to open the lens and crank up the ISO to astronomical levels that yield a fast shutter speed for hand holding in dim light. The down side is a significant increase in noise that will have to be either tolerated or dealt with in software.

This was the situation during a 50 year Summer of Love celebration in Golden Gate Park. It included a lighting of the Conservatory of Flowers with colored patterns projected on its white surface. A great photographic opportunity, but the crowd was so huge that a tripod would be impractical. There were railings and supports available. But unless you arrived early to stake out a spot, these areas were not approachable.

So the only alternative was to crank up the ISO, open the lens and reduce the shutter to the fastest speed that will produce acceptable exposure. It was also essential to put focus on manual and adjust it accurately in live view. Then the only alternative was to hold the camera up above the crowd and shoot hand held.

This is the result shot at ISO 6400, 1/10 sec, f4.5.

Summer of Love

San Francisco Conservatory lit for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

 

There is significant unavoidable noise. The shutter speed of 1/10 second was slower than optimal given the zoom focal length of 34mm. But there is no camera shake. Considering the circumstances it is the best that can be done and the results are acceptable.

Here is a closer zoom shot taken at the same time. Again there is unavoidable noise.

Summer of Love, Conservatory, Golden Gate Park.

Another shot of the Conservatory taken at the same settings.

Sometimes circumstances determine a less than optimal solution to a low light situation and you just have to go with it. The beauty of digital photography is the ability to achieve good results under conditions that would have been impossible in the days of film. Kodachrome 64 would have required around three seconds for a similar exposure.

So when the lights go down the choice is clear: put the camera on a tripod or use an alternative like HandlePod to stabilize on any available support. Or you can increase the ISO for a shutter speed that can be hand held and live with the noise that results.

Shoot RAW or JPEG? It Depends on Light

In ancient times when film was the only photographic method, the rule was “expose for the shadows, develop and print for the highlights.” The process was created and promoted by the legendary Ansel Adams as the Zone System. It applied primarily to black and white and involved considerable darkroom alchemy to produce a full range of shadow and highlight detail in a finished print.

In the digital darkroom the rules have changed. Modern masters of digital alchemy recommend exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows fall where they may. This is because it is much easier to pull detail from underexposed areas. Highlights that are over exposed will be blown out to pure white with little or no recoverable detail.

The Advantage of RAW and When to Use It

A further recommendation is to always shoot in raw. This is a reasonable suggestion that offers considerable advantages, but only under certain circumstances. Most photographers are perfectly content to shoot in jpeg and settle for images that come directly out of camera. This approach works fine for the vast majority of digital photos.

So why shoot raw? The only reason is to provide greater latitude to manipulate and improve the image in post processing. A raw file has been compared to a film negative where all the information is there and just needs to be brought out in the print. The comparison is accurate in the fact that a film negative is only the first step in image creation that you would never display. The same is true of a raw file. It may look reasonable, but raw files always need post processing to bring out the best the image has to offer. And you can’t share a raw file without converting it to a standard image format like jpeg or tiff.

The technical details of raw vs jpeg are described in this excellent article. The purpose of this blog is to detail the “why” of shooting raw and point out some informative YouTube tutorials that demonstrate the “how”. A major justification for shooting raw is a combination of low light and high dynamic range.

When the sun descends below the horizon, fabulous sunsets appear. Wonderful “golden hour” and “blue hour” light offer great photographic opportunities. But conditions are often difficult with bright sunset sky and dark foreground. Cityscapes with street lights present a further challenge regarding exposure and color balance. All of these issues can be dealt with in post processing and a raw file contains more information for greater control.

Post Processing Tutorials

There is a tremendous amount of information available on line for image manipulation in Photoshop and Lightroom. A particularly informative Lightroom guru is Serge Ramelli. His YouTube tutorials are nothing short of amazing. He shows how to turn a dark, under exposed photograph with significant light problems into an image that is absolutely fantastic. This Paris night scene demonstrates exactly what can be done with some Lightroom magic.

This is not to say that all this post processing magic can’t be done with a jpeg file. But shooting in raw does allow greater latitude for image manipulation in Lightroom and Photoshop. So if lighting presents a challenge and it is obvious that the photo will require significant post processing, then definitely shoot in raw.

If, on the other hand, lighting is even, exposure is simple and the image is fine straight out of camera, then go with jpeg. In today’s digital darkroom the choice is yours.

Tripod Mounted Manual or Hand Held Automatic, Which One Is You?

There are two types of photographers: the tripod mounted manual shooter who only captures RAW files and the hand held shooter with the camera always on automatic who only shoots JPEG. What kind of photographer are you?

Of course this is an over simplification and most photographers shift between the two extremes depending on the situation. The key is to know your camera and decide which approach works best for what you are shooting.

Many photo tutorials instruct you to get out of automatic and take control of your camera settings. This is an essential approach but there are times when the automatic setting can be your friend. An example is outdoor events in changing light with moving subjects.

Bay to Breakers

A quick automatic exposure shot of costumed walkers in the San Francisco Bay to Breakers event.

The Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco is a case in point. The key here is to aim the camera and shoot fast. After the serious runners have passed, the costumed walkers make interesting subjects. But nobody wants to stop and pose while you set your camera. Speed is essential here for quick candids or fast shots of subjects willing to pose. The automatic setting here isn’t lazy, just efficient.

 

 

 

 

Moving Subjects Benefit from Continuous Mode

When subjects are moving quickly or light is changing through sun and shade or passing clouds automatic is a help. Multiple shots can also be a scene saver. An example is dancers in the Carnaval parade. It is difficult to hit the shutter at the exact moment when one or more dancers are in the best position. Set the camera on continuous shooting and take many exposures over a few seconds. One shot will probably be better than the rest as in the example below.

Carnival

In this four-shot sequence of Carnaval dancers the last photo is the best.

 

 

Manual Camera Control Is Often Necessary

Of course there are times when you want to control one or all of your camera settings for specific results. Examples include sports photography where you would want to set shutter priority at a fast speed to freeze the action. For macro photography or portraiture you would want to control depth of field with an appropriate aperture priority setting.

Low light and night photography is where you would want to be on a tripod or other stabilizing support like HandlePod and adjust all your camera settings manually. These include low ISO to minimize noise, best aperture setting for maximum sharpness, and a series of slow, bracketed shutter speeds to achieve the best exposure.

This is where you may also want to shoot in RAW to preserve a maximum amount of information for post processing later. RAW is the best capture format but the images cannot be shared or viewed by others until post processed and converted into JPEG or other common image format.

Most photographers do not fall exclusively into the two simple categories described above. It is best to apply the settings and techniques appropriate for what you are shooting. And depending on circumstances, “automatic” can be the most user friendly way to go.

 

Add Impact to Landscape Photos with Sky Replacement

Just about any landscape or outdoor scenery photo could use a dynamic cloud-filled sky to enliven the impact. But you have no choice over the sky that’s there when you shoot. In the days of film it was “what you see is what you get” and you were stuck with whatever filled the sky at the time.

sky replacement

Scan of original Kodachrome slide has blown out sky and dull colors.

Take, for example, this photo of Castel Combe in England. It is a scan of the original Kodachrome slide. The day was solid overcast and the sky was blown out to featureless white. This would be the case whether the scene was shot on film or digital. But the original film was daylight balanced and despite what the song says, the colors are dull and muted. It sure doesn’t “make you think all the world’s a sunny day.” The shot has potential but needs help.

Sky Replacement Makes a Big Difference

First the sky. This is not a tutorial on sky replacement. You can easily find an excellent sky replacement tutorial using Photoshop, Lightroom or both. Many techniques are available. Trees present a particular challenge and this tutorial covers it very well.

The sky in this example was added very simply by importing the clouds as a separate Photoshop layer underneath the main image then erasing the white sky to reveal the clouds. The eraser was not at 100 percent in order to keep the sky a bit muted to match the light on the main subject.

Lighting and Reflection Completes the Scene

Now that the sky is brighter than the original blank white it’s time to make the subject match the light. This is done in Lightroom with a few simple adjustments in clarity, vibrance and saturation. The final step was to add a hint of the sky reflected in the water. This was done by selecting the sky, inverting it and placing it over the water. Adjust the opacity so it is just visible and erase those parts that are not over clear water. A bit of cropping yields the final result you see here, a vast improvement over the original Kodachrome transparency.

Castle Combe sky replacement

Castle Combe photo with sky, color adjustments and reflection of sky in the water.

Even the most featureless, dull sky can be salvaged with the right post processing. So shoot on those dreary, overcast days and add an interesting sky in post. If the original is on film use a scanner to bring it into the digital world and give it new life. Like the Paul Simon song says, Kodachrome can “make you think all the world’s a sunny day.” It just takes is a little modern digital post processing.

Use HDR Processing to Salvage Kodachrome Slides and Bring Them Back to Life

It was not that long ago when the only way to shoot a photograph was on film. Those of us who remember those ancient times probably have many boxes of slides, negatives and prints gathering dust on some forgotten shelf. Among those thousands of images there are no doubt some that would be worth bringing back to life, if only the modern wonders of digital processing can be applied. Well it can. All it takes is a scanner and some processing software.

An earlier blog talked about correcting uneven exposure in color negative scans. Photoshop can compensate for most exposure discrepancy in a negative or slide scan as long as there is sufficient detail and no areas are completely black or blown out white. But what if you have a slide with high dynamic range issues that could use HDR processing software?

Correct Old Slide Film with HDR Processing

That is how I wanted to deal with an old slide of Sainte Chapelle in Paris. This magnificent 13th century gothic masterpiece is famous for its incredible stained glass. But the bright light through the glass and the dark church interior were too much for the Kodachrome film of the time. The spectacular scene as rendered on my pitiful color slide was a bitter disappointment. No exposure could properly render the stained glass and church interior in one image. It was a situation that screamed high dynamic range.

Sainte Chapelle

Normal, under and over exposed scans of a Kodachrome slide lack detail in light and dark areas.

I only had one slide of the main part of the church so I decided to scan it at three different exposures using an Epson V600 scanner. This is easy to do by adjusting the histogram for each scan. As you can see in the illustration above, the normal, under and over exposures do not retain sufficient detail in the light and dark areas. But this is nearly as useful for HDR as three bracketed exposures taken in camera. It gives the software more to work with.

The next step is to take the three exposures into an HDR processor such as Photomatix. This provides a number of options and photo manipulations to achieve a wide range of results. Here is the final image I came up with after processing in Photomatix. It also required some Photoshop tweeking to straighten the horizon. But the result is infinitely better than anything I could have achieved on Kodachrome film at the time.

Sainte Chapelle, three exposure scans tonemapped in Photomatix.

So you see that salvaging film photographs from the old days is a simple matter of scanning and processing in HDR or other software. Similar results could also be achieved in Photoshop, Lightroom or whatever your preference is. But if you have a few film photos with real potential, consider scanning and processing to bring them back to life in the digital world.

 

HandlePod Becomes a Versatile Bicycle Mount with One Simple Modification

A main strength of HandlePod is the ability to attach it to just about anything with the elastic cord. Securing it to the handlebars of a bicycle will give you fabulous motion video of your favorite bike path. There is just one problem. The four feet of the HandlePod are too wide and the rubber tips will not engage the handlebar for a firm grip.

Mounting Putty Makes HandlePod a Reliable Bike Mount

handlebar mount

Loctite Mounting Putty will turn HandlePod into a reliable bike handlebar mount.

But there is a simple, inexpensive solution. It’s called Loctite Fun-Tak Mounting putty. It’s available in many hardware stores for just a couple of dollars. Other mounting putty products discussed in a previous blog will also work.

But Loctite is well suited for this purpose. It comes in strips of blue material that you can easily attach to the underside of the HandlePod feet.

 

 

 

HandlePod on bicycle

HandlePod attached to a bicycle with strips of Loctite Mounting Putty holds a smartphone.

Strips of Loctite reduce the diameter of the feet and provide an adhesive surface that will firmly adhere to the handlebar. The adhesion is not enough to hold the HandlePod, but a few wraps of the elastic cord will secure it solidly. Now you can mount an action cam or your phone to your bicycle and shoot great motion video of your ride.

Of course there are dedicated handlebar mounts for GoPro and other action cameras. But if you don’t have a handlebar mount or want to use your phone as an action cam, the simple addition of Loctite Mounting Putty will turn HandlePod into a solid, reliable bicycle mount.

Video yourself as you ride with the camera phone in selfie mode

And there are other advantages to using HandlePod as a bike mount. With HandlePod the action cam or phone can be aimed in any direction. Point the camera anywhere you want or switch the phone to selfie mode to see yourself on your epic ride. Or get a unique perspective by mounting the camera on the forks or other parts of the frame.

When you are finished recording your bicycle adventure with HandlePod and your phone the whole setup comes off easily. Leave the Loctite putty in place or take it off the HandlePod. It separates easily and leaves no residue. It is a simple way to make HandlePod attach to small diameter supports.

Add Pans to Time Lapse Video with Muvi X-Lapse and HandlePod

Time lapse video requires a moving subject to be effective—clouds, ocean waves, people, traffic, all make fascinating time lapse scenes. Another requirement is camera stabilization. A tripod or other reliable camera support is essential. Hand held time lapse would be far too jerky.

Another option is camera movement. Panning creates a much more compelling time lapse video, which is the subject of this blog.

time lapse camera rotator

Muvi X-Lapse camera rotator is inexpensive and does an excellent job.

Add a Time Lapse Rotator
There are many time lapse camera rotation devices available in a range of prices. The unit described here is the Veho Muvi X-Lapse available from Amazon for $17.59. It is inexpensive and works extremely well with some limitations. One is weight. It will support a smartphone, action camera, a point-and-shoot or small mirrorless. Maximum camera weight is 750 grams or about 26 ounces. A DSLR would be too heavy.

It comes with a smartphone holder that is useful but does not solidly grip the phone and is subject to wobble. A strong wind could shift it. A more reliable tripod adapter for smartphones is recommended.

Mini ball head camera mount

AKORAK mini ball head is useful to point the camera up or down while the rotator remains level.

Use a Mini Ball Head
Another useful accessory would be a mini tripod ball head. A small one such as that pictured can be had for as little as $5.99 on Amazon.

The reason for adding a ball head is because the rotator must be level or it will tilt the camera up or down as it turns. If you want to point the camera in a direction other than horizontal, it must be done with a mini tripod head while the rotator remains level.

 

Options are Limited

There are not a lot of options with a device this simple and cheap. Speed of rotation is fixed at one hour for a 360 degree rotation. It can be set for any degree of rotation and there are markings for 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes. Also it will only turn from right to left. Left to right rotation is unavailable with one exception described later.

Three fold out feet make the X-Lapse more stable on a flat, solid surface. But what if a level surface is unavailable and you don’t have a tripod? That’s where HandlePod is a useful alternative support. It will attach firmly to any object that the elastic cord will wrap around.

Another approach is to attach it with sticky putty as described in a previous blog. This will easily hold a smartphone or small action cam. HandlePod can be attached to horizontal or vertical supports like railings or poles.

Muvi X-Lapse on HandlePod

Muvi X-Lapse mounted on HandlePod and attached to a gate post.

On vertical objects like the gate post pictured here, the slotted camera mount leaves plenty of room to hold the rotator and the smartphone. It allows full rotation without interfering with movement of the smartphone as it turns.

Muvi X-Lapse on HandlePod

Muvi X-Lapse mounted on HandlePod upside down will reverse rotation from left to right.

As mentioned earlier, the X-Lapse only turns from right to left. This can be reversed on a vertical support by mounting the X-Lapse on the HandlePod upside down as pictured. Now it will turn in the opposite direction from left to right.

There are many time lapse apps for smartphones that work extremely well. An earlier blog talked about Framelapse Pro. Another app for Android is Hyperlapse. These work extremely well and are easy to use. A rotation device such as X-Lapse mounted on Handlepod allows compelling time lapse video panning with a minimum of equipment weight, bulk and expense.

Use Your Car, HandlePod and Sticky Putty for Motion Video

It was over twenty years ago that my wife and I were driving along a narrow country road through the hill towns of Spain. The landscape was beautiful but there was no place to pull over to get a shot. I had a Hi8 video camera that I handed to my wife and asked her to shoot through the window as I drove. She’d never used the camera before, couldn’t see through the tiny eyepiece viewfinder, couldn’t hold the camera steady and it was a disaster. She soon gave up after a few seconds of shaky, useless video.

I remember being somewhat annoyed at missing video of the beautiful scenes through the car window. But I got over it. We’re still together.

HandlePod and Sticky Putty Solves the Problem

HandlePod and Sticky Putty

HandlePod attached to the dashboard with Sticky Putty holds smartphone firmly in place.

How times have changed! Today everyone carries a cell phone with a built-in video camera. Recording a scenic drive through the Spanish countryside or anywhere else is a snap. But holding the camera steady in a moving car is still an issue (and impossible if you are driving alone).

That’s where HandlePod comes in. As described in a previous blog, it is a simple matter to fix lumps of Alcolin Sticky Putty (or similar material) to the feet of HandlePod. Then press the HandlePod onto the dash, attach a smartphone tripod adapter with your phone and start recording.

The Sticky Putty will hold the HandlePod solidly in place and the smartphone video is smooth and shake-free. This system will also hold a GoPro or other small action cam. A video capable point-and-shoot or mirrorless camera will also work.

Shoot Video Through the Side Window

Sticky Putty on HandlePod

Sticky Putty on HandlePod feet will adhere a camera phone solidly to window glass.

If you want to get a shot out the side window, that is also possible. Sticky Putty adheres firmly to glass. Press the HandlePod against the side window and mold the putty onto the glass. Now you can shoot out the side of the car as the world goes by.

HandlePod with Sticky Putty makes your car a reliable moving video platform. And you can turn the camera around to shoot the driver and passenger as well—perfect for vloging and travel commentary. The ability to stick your smartphone or action cam to any solid surface opens up a world of photo and video possibility. The car offers a major opportunity. More to come in future blogs.

 

Adhesive Putty Will Attach HandlePod and Your Camera to Anything

The previous blog discussed three brands of adhesive putty that could be used to stick HandlePod on just about anything. They all more or less worked except for Dap BlueStik (too soft and minimal adhesion). Loctite Fun-Tak is a bit stiff and not real sticky. Scotch mounting putty was the best of the three and easily available. But the search continued for a material that would stick even more firmly.

The Best Material Yet!

Alcolin Sticky Putty

Alcolin Sticky Putty provides superior adhesion to attach HandlePod to any surface.

Alcolin Sticky Putty has much better adhesion and is easily pliable. It is the best material found so far. It comes in a three-ounce package and the putty is a flat rectangle divided in half down the center. It is sandwiched between two strips of paper (save this paper for later).

Sticky Putty on HandlePod–Easy As One Two Three

Sticky Putty on HandlePod

Alcolin Sticky Putty attaches easily to HandlePods feet to stick your camera on any surface.

The Sticky Putty strip is split in half down the middle. Separate the two halves and cut one of the halves into four equal strips. Roll each strip into a marble-size ball. Then press each lump of putty onto the four feet of the HandlePod.

Adhesive putty on HandlePod

Group photo taken with phone on HandlePod attached to the wall with adhesive putty.

That’s all there is to it. Now you can press the HandlePod against any solid surface and it will stay in place. It will hold a smartphone, GoPro, action cam or any small still or video camera on just about anything.

Imagine the possibilities when a wall, a door, a window or any solid surface can hold your camera for whatever photo, group shot, self-portrait or video you want to shoot—no selfie stick or asking strangers to hold your camera!

 

 

 

 

Use a Remote Shutter Release or Self-Timer

Bluetooth shutter release

Bluetooth remote shutter release.

With your camera stuck on a wall you’ll need a remote shutter release to take the photo. A remote for a smartphone is the best method since you can fire the shot whenever you want. They come in a variety of models and prices and will work on Android or iPhone with a Bluetooth connection.

Another option is to use a self timer on the phone which will count down for a programmable number of seconds then fire the shutter. Most phones either have this option or it can be added with an app such as A Better Camera for Android.

Sticky Putty Comes Off Easily

When you are finished shooting it is easy to pull the sticky putty from the surface. It should come off cleanly but anything remaining can be removed by pressing the putty onto the residue and pulling it off quickly.

When you are finished you can remove the putty from the HandlePod feet the same way. Use the paper the putty is packaged with to wrap up the lumps of putty for future use. A small amount may remain on the rubber feet but this is not a problem. In fact it improves the high friction, non-slip properties of the HandlePod, making it easier to hold in place by hand.

Sticky putty on HandlePod is a perfect way to attach a camera phone, Go Pro, action camera or point-and-shoot to just about any available surface. Mirrorless, bridge cameras or other larger cameras will work but it is important to check adhesion first. Make sure the putty will hold on the chosen surface before attaching a larger camera.

Some surfaces work better than others and it is essential to make certain the putty will hold before trusting a heavier, more valuable camera to it. But sticky putty on HandlePod is a simple, inexpensive way to turn any solid surface into a reliable camera mount.

Adhesive Putty Makes Versatile HandlePod Stick to Anything

A recent blog talked about using sticky putty to adhere HandlePod to almost any surface. The material (putty used for hand exercise therapy) was discovered by accident and worked very well. But a number of adhesive putty products will do a better job.

How to Use Adhesive Putty on HandlePod

Adhesive putty

Three common adhesive putty products will stick HandlePod to any surface.

Three materials tested so far include Loctite Fun-Tak, Scotch Mounting Putty, and Dap BLUESTIK Adhesive Putty. Each is used the same way. They come divided into strips or blocks that you can roll into marble-sized balls and press onto HandlePods four rubber-tipped feet. Then simply press the HandlePod onto any surface, aim the camera and shoot. It couldn’t be easier! Now walls, trees, doors, windows, any surface too big for the HandlePod cord to wrap around, can support a camera.

Perfect for Smartphones, Action Cams, Point-And-Shoot

Adhesive putty on HandlePod

Smartphone on HandlePod uses adhesive putty to stick to the wall.

Now you can mount your phone or any small camera on HandlePod and stick it to any surface with adhesive putty. Get in the picture yourself for a full length portrait or a group shot that includes everybody. No missing photographer or outstretched one-armed selfie stick shot.

Test Adhesion First

With the putty stuck to the HandlePod feet, press it against the support and mold the putty onto the surface with your fingers. You should be able to tug on the HandlePod firmly without pulling it off. Then mount the camera, set the timer or use a remote and get in the shot yourself.

This system can easily support a smartphone, action cam like GoPro or a point-and-shoot. Take care when using a heavier mirrorless or bridge camera. Make sure it will hold for the few seconds needed for a self portrait or group shot. The putty will not hold forever so make sure you have plenty of time to get the shot and remove the camera.

Natural Surfaces Work Too

adhesive putty on HandlePod

A point-and-shoot on HandlePod sticks to tree bark with adhesive putty.

HandlePod was designed primarily for man-made objects like posts, rails, columns, etc. But if you’re out in the woods and the only supports are rocks and trees, adhesive putty on HandlePod will do the job. Make sure the putty will stick to the chosen surface. Then mount the camera and shoot.

The putty may pick up bits of bark, rocks and dirt from a natural surface. This can be easily removed by hand. What remains can be kneaded into the putty and will not affect its performance. If the putty eventually picks up too much foreign material it can easily be replaced at two dollars a package.

Different Products, Different Performance

Of the three products tested here each has a different degree of firmness. The softest material is Dap BLUESTIK which doesn’t seem to adhere as firmly as the others. It is adequate for use with a smartpone but not recommended for use with anything much heavier.

Scotch Mounting Putty is much firmer but can be easily molded onto the HandlePod and pressed on supports. It does an excellent job. Use it with any lightweight camera.

Loctite Fun-Tak is the firmest of the three and takes some pressure to mold it into shape. But it performs well and can be used on practically any solid surface.

Adhesive Putty Is Easy to Find

One brand or other of adhesive putty can be found at just about any office supply or hardware store. They usually come in one or two-ounce packages for about two dollars. There are many other brands available which I have yet to evaluate. Adhesive putty is an inexpensive and fun way to extend the versatility and usefulness of HandlePod.