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Every great photograph tells a story, but I often find it interesting to read the story behind the photograph — and hence this occasional series of posts. This time it is the turn of an image that has frequently appeared in books and magazines, including the front cover of one property guide, and is also one of the most popular photographs on LodgePhoto.com:

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

First of all, an answer to a frequently asked question: Yes, it’s a true photograph and the haze behind the farmhouse has not been “photoshopped” into the image! Vignamaggio is a charming Tuscan renaissance villa clinging to the hillside above the town of Greve in Chianti. We first found it while renting a villa a short distance away, further up the road. We saw it was a winery and that was enough by itself for us to stop — but we also knew that Vignamaggio was the location for Kenneth Brannagh’s joyous 1993 Shakespeare film adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing.

Today, the villa is an upscale B&B and winery and had billed itself as “The Birthplace Of Mona Lisa” until just a few years ago. This leads to second most frequently asked question: is it really, truly the birthplace of Mona Lisa, sitter for perhaps the most famous portrait ever? Well… no, sorry. The literature at the villa claims Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Mona Lisa, was born at Vignamaggio in 1479, the daughter of a wealthy Tuscan merchant. There’s just one problem with this: the Gherardinis had sold Vignamaggio 50 years before Lisa was born, and the baptistry records in Florence are clear: she was born and baptised there.

There has been intense speculation over the “actual” identity of the model for Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting. Renaissance art historian Vasari states that it was Lisa Giocondo (nee Gherardini) in his “Lives of the artists”. The only problem was that Vasari was writing 30 years after Leonardo’s death, which was enough wiggle room for some to suggest that Vasari was mistaken and that the sitter was Leonardo himself, or Isabella of Aragon, or Leonardo’s mother, or… you get the picture.

In 2005, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a book that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Giocondo. Lisa was married to a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and this gave rise to the other name of the painting: La Gioconda — also a pun on the jovial expression Leonardo painted.

But no matter: today, a visit to Villa Vignamaggio is primarily about wine and/or olive oil, or to stay in its Bed & Breakfast accomodation. The villa’s Mona Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva is excellent, and they also make a range of “Super Tuscans” — wines grown locally that don’t meet the technical criteria to qualify as Chianti Classico. Don’t let that put you off: only wines made almost entirely from Sangiovese can be Chiantis, so a really good Tuscan cabernet has to be called something else!

The picture was taken with a long lens late on a summer afternoon looking down from the villa itself. One of the things that makes this picture is the quality of light, a natural gift in that part of the world, which is largely responsible for the saturated color of the tile and stone. The atmospheric conditions common at that time of year (September) cause the haze, making for a pleasing contrast between the foreground and the background. Quality of light is one of the most important ingredients in “available light” photography, and is one reason why waiting for the right light can make a huge difference to a picture. That’s also my excuse for enjoying a leisurely Italian lunch with a glass or two of wine: the light’s too strong! Finally, the long lens is important because it helps to blur the background, improving the contrast and composition.

Vignamaggio is a magical place to visit or stay, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

I’ve been asked how to take colorful landscape photographs a couple of different times, and ended up writing an answer on Quora and republishing it here. It’s always best to get the shot right in the camera versus focusing on post-processing. While I always shoot RAW as that gives me the most leeway to fix anything later and add artistic effects, it’s a bad habit to rely on later RAW processing to fix things you can get right in the camera.

The good news? There are two common reasons for washed out, low contrast images, and only one extra trick that’s worth knowing to get vivid, colorful photographs.

1. Exposing for colorful photos

Exposure is the most common error, so I will cover that first. We need to expose for the mid-tones of the image to get saturated colors. Highlights and anything at the right of the luminance histogram tend to white. The more over-exposed your image, the lighter the colors and the more washed out it looks.

For example:

Washed out photograph that isn't colorful

This landscape is properly exposed per the camera, but looks washed out. The histogram shows that the pixels are bunched up to the right, with lots of high RGB-value pixels:

Luminosity histogram for washed out photograph

High RGB-value pixels are basically shades of white, the opposite of saturated colors, so the histogram shows that the image is washed out because it is mostly composed of white-ish pixels. We can reduce the exposure value (EV) to fix this at capture: the simplest way is to use the exposure compensation dial, but a reduction of ISO, shutter and/or aperture will work too.

Here’s that same scene about -2 EV from the previous image:

Vivid, colorful landscape photograph

And here’s the histogram with the actual exposure values for this image:

Luminosity histogram for colorful vivid photograph

Now you can see that there is a little clipping in the blacks (that’s what the red triangle at the top-left indicates) and we have also have no pixels at all with high luminance (the gap between the blue pixel “mountain peak” and the right-hand edge of the histogram shows this). Technically, this picture is not exposed correctly — some detail is being lost in the darkest shadows, and we’re not using the full range of the sensor. But that’s why photographers make exposure decisions, not cameras. The second image conveys the saturated colors of the lake and the trees, and we don’t care about the lost shadow detail in the lakeside on the right.

Now that we understand where saturated colors come from, we can understand why we’d use other exposure-reducing techniques like filters (see below). But first…

2. Bad light

The second most important reason for lack of saturation is taking a photo in bad light. Typically the worst light is at noon, because illuminated surfaces are going to tend to white as they’re getting a lot of light from the fiery orb in the sky. If you compensate for this in exposure, the shadows will simply be black because the camera sensor cannot capture the enormous light difference between the two. So, take the photo when the light is softer and the dynamic range can be captured by the camera.

The photographer Syl Arena (https://sylarena.com/) summarizes this well: “If you want to create interesting light, you have to create interesting shadows.”

This is why landscape photographers scout the location to understand where the sun will be and what path it will take, and have smartphone apps that tell them sunrise and sunset at that location. Get up early for soft morning light, know when the “golden hour” is when the setting sun washes the scene with warm light, and learn how to use the “blue hour” after the sun has set.

Sunset:

Vivid colorful landscape photograph taken at in the golden hour

Early morning:

Colorful vivid landscape photograph taken in the morning

Notice the very different moods of the same scene captured at different times of the day. Think about the emotion you want to evoke.

And this is just ambient light. There’s also a whole world of lighting for photography using strobes (flash) and, increasingly, continuous lights that can help you create interesting light and interesting shadows.

If we can get good exposure and good light, then we are 90% of the way there, and can now look at getting the last 10% of saturation and contrast possible at capture.

3. Filters

All landscape photographers have at least one polarizing filter. It cuts out reflected light, which has the effect of cutting haze in a landscape image and really making clouds “pop”. Reducing reflected light also increases contrast and saturation. All modern cameras use circular polarizing filters. You should get one for each of your landscape lenses.

Note that the effect of a polarizing filter is one thing that cannot be fixed later in RAW processing. I know, I know, there are “haze cutter” presets/actions for Lightroom and Photoshop but they basically work by fiddling with the local contrast in an image. The polarizing filter globally screens out light you don’t want in your image, and that isn’t possible to take out in post.

You can also buy “graduated neutral density” filters. You can use these to selectively reduce exposure for situations where a standard exposure would blow out some portion of the image — the sky for example — while the rest of the image (and those mid-tones) is properly exposed. Neutral density (ND) filters are basically translucent gray glass or plastic. They simply block some amount of the light passing through them. Graduated neutral density filters are clear on one edge and gray on the other, with a change in opacity of the filter.

Picture of three different types of graduated neutral density filters

These are examples of fairly sharp changes, but you can also buy filters with a more gradual transition from grey to clear. Using a filter holder mounted on the end of your lens, you can position the clear part of the filter on the part of the image that you’re exposing for, and use the grey part on the sky or whatever needs to come down in exposure.

You can get a very similar effect as a graduated ND filter in RAW processing. Basically it’s an exposure gradient applied to the image. It isn’t as good as doing it at the time you take the shot, because it is limited to the exposure leeway of the RAW file (typically 2.5 EV) and it introduces more noise into the image.

Here’s an example of using a graduated ND filter. Without the filter, the sky is pretty boring while the chapel and graveyard are well exposed:

Vivid colorful landscape photograph without good sky

And after, the graduated ND filter reduces the sky exposure revealing some interesting clouds and saturated blue sky. It’s also giving us more saturation in the red color of the chapel roof line:

Vivid colorful landscape photograph using neutral density filter

Both of these were taken with a polarizing filter, which is why the cloud texture is so visible in the sky, and it helps increase the overall contrast of the image.

Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it’s easy enough once you know how.

Florence streets lit by 220 volts
Florence streets lit by 220 volts

The trick is to look for a sticker on the power adapter or plug that tells you the input voltage. The magic words to look for are something like this: “100-240V AC 50/60Hz”. 100-240 tells you the voltage range: Europe standardized on 220 volts for its standard household power supply. So the voltage range on your device needs to cover 220 volts or more for your electronics to work in Italy, France and most of Europe. If your gadget can cope with a higher range, that’s OK too (e.g. “90-240”).  In all of these cases, you just need a simple (and cheap) plug adapter and the device itself will automatically adapt to the higher voltage.

Here’s a video that shows you the various plug adapters and how they work:

Almost all of today’s small electronics like cameras, mobile phones, laptops and chargers automatically adapt and you just need a plug adapter.

Devices that use more power, like hairdryers or portable kettles, almost always only work on US 110 volts. Check the label: if it says something like “120VAC” or a smaller range such as “100-130V” then you cannot use it in Europe without a voltage transformer. This is extremely important: if you plug a standard 120V hair dryer into 220V using a plug adapter, it will immediately burn out the dryer and may cause a fire.

The good news is that there are travel hairdryers etc. available that are designed to adapt to the voltage. But in general it is much harder to design a high power device that is adaptable to 110V and 220V, because to do so you need a very heavy and large voltage transformer.

External voltage transformers are available: they are rated by the amount of power they can supply, in Watts. So it might say on your electric kettle “1000W” — that means you need a transformer rated for 1000W or greater. Again, it can be dangerous to exceed the maximum rating of a transformer: it will eventually melt and may catch fire. The more transformer a converter can supply, the larger and heavier it will be, so beware of smaller adapters if you need a lot of power.

The simple approach? Take devices that don’t need voltage conversion. The good news is that these days, most of them don’t. Take a travel hair dryer rather than lugging around a high current transformer: it’s much lighter. Simply don’t take portable kettles and other high power devices.

Photography began with the concept of capturing light in a single plane — the idea of what’s in and out of focus in an image has been central to photographic composition for more than 100 years. The photographer’s job has been to direct the viewer’s attention by deciding which subjects are in focus, while ensuring that the background (and less frequently, the foreground) are appropriately blurred. The Lytro camera turns that entire concept on its head by delivering a “living image” where the viewer can change the point of focus to explore the image.

When my Lytro arrived, I couldn’t wait to try it out. What follows is my review of the 1.0.0 version of the Lytro camera and 1.0.0 software following my attempts to take good photographs.

I’d love to embed some Lytro photos in this post, but that doesn’t seem to work. So, instead, here’s a link to my Lytro gallery (opens in a new window): Lytro example

The Lytro camera “out of box” experience is very well done and will be very familiar to anyone who owns an iPod or iPhone. It comes in a white box, with the camera held firmly in place with plastic inserts. Underneath the camera is a white cardboard box containing the paperwork, lens cap, cleaning cloth, wrist strap and USB cable.

The camera itself is small — just 4.4 inches long — and arrives with some charge in the battery so you can start shooting immediately. It’s shaped like a square tube, with the lens at one end and a small viewing screen at the other:

Lytro light field camera
Lytro light field camera

A small power button on the bottom turns on the camera, and the shutter button is on the top. Zooming is accomplished by dragging a finger left and right on the rear top edge of the camera. It’s a little clunky, as it can be hard to set just the right composition, but it works.

The camera is fully automatic: it sets shutter speed and ISO automatically with a fixed f2 aperture. You can tap on the rear screen to tell the camera the exposure metering point and it will do its best. The Lytro needs a wide aperture to capture the best light field — the direction of the light as well as its intensity and color. There’s a little clicking sound when you point the camera at a very bright object like the sky on a sunny day, and exposure is reduced. I suspect it’s inserting a neutral density filter inside the lens barrel to reduce the light intensity.

In “Everyday mode” (the default), the Lytro takes photos instantaneously when you press the shutter button. Lytro makes much of this “instant capture” capability in its marketing, because a light field camera doesn’t have to focus. In theory, yes. In practice, not so much, which is why there’s “Creative mode”, accessed by swiping a finger upwards on the rear screen and tapping a small icon, allowing you to focus the camera. The physics of optics has crashed the “focus free” light field party here: the camera has to focus the lens so that the captured light field has a useful range of potential focus planes.

The net? The Lytro camera requires very careful framing and composition of subjects to give the viewer an interesting set of subjects separated by distance. While the camera might be point and shoot, the composition work is anything but instantaneous! Creative mode offers more flexibility in composing the subjects by distance (handy if they are inanimate) and careful control of the camera to ensure it is properly “focused”. The square (1:1) aspect ratio of the image doesn’t help with composition, making it hard to get everything into the frame. The camera would be easier to use if it had a wide aspect ratio, as there would be more room in the frame for the subjects.

This is really the crux of the challenge presented by the Lytro: how to use it to produce an effective photograph that is interesting and aesthetically pleasing for the viewer. Many of the examples on the Lytro website are contrived compositions with near and far elements to show off the novelty of being able to re-focus after the fact. If that is all there is for light field images, then its impact on photography has been dramatically over-hyped.

Plugging the camera into your Mac (Windows support just shipped) allows you to install the Lytro Desktop software — a nice touch. Once installed, you unplug and replug the camera to download images. You can then view the images — though not at full size — and change the focus point. You can also share images on Facebook and Lytro’s own website, and export JPEGs (so I’m told — I have never managed to find this function in the software). The only effective way to show an image is through the flash file stored on the Lytro website, which is severely limiting.

Lytro touts the camera’s low-light capabilities, but I think that’s a mistake. There is significant noise, banding, lines and other odd artefacts in low light. Shutter speeds are low, even at f2, so camera shake is a real problem, and there’s no flash integration.

Overall, the Lytro camera is intriguing more for future possibilities than what it can do today. Version 1.0.0 is pretty basic and effective composition is extremely time-consuming and requires full cooperation of your subjects. With light field photography, we ought to be able to produce 3D photographs, change the viewers position, tilt and shift the plane of focus to our liking… there are many more possibilities than capabilities in the current software. Today, I find myself leaving the Lytro at home more often than I take it out, and that’s a shame.

 

Thinking about buying a new digital camera? The best advice I can give you is to avoid maxing out megapixels and you’ll get sharper photographs with less grain (noise). This seems counter-intuitive, but is the effect of camera technology running into physical limitations of lenses and light itself.

David Goldstein has written a full-length paper that explains the physics, but here are the key take-aways on megapixels:

  • For a full-frame (35mm) SLR camera, 25 megapixels is about as good as it gets.
  • For a smaller “APS” digital SLR camera, about 20% smaller than 35mm, 10 megapixels is the point of diminishing returns, and 15 megapixels is on the edge (and has noticeably more noise)
  • For a pocket camera where the sensor is about 1/5th the size of 35mm, 4-5 megapixels is the point of diminishing returns, 10 megapixels is pushing it even at very wide apertures, and 12 megapixel or greater pocket cameras will take disappointingly fuzzy pictures at aperture f/2.8 or greater.

Adding megapixels is good until it’s not

Why is this? Fundamentally, camera manufacturers have to balance increasing resolution from more megapixels with two competing forces: noise from the digital camera sensor and softness caused by lens diffraction. You’ve probably seen that photos taken at ISO 1600 on your camera are much more grainy than those taken at ISO 100 — that’s what noise looks like in your pictures. At the same time, the lens aperture (f-stop) puts an upper limit on how much detail can be resolved by the camera. Overall, more megapixels don’t automatically mean better pictures.

Noise is a result of the fundamental physics of light and the way that digital color cameras capture images. Light is made up of photons, with more photons meaning brighter light. The digital camera sensor counts the number of photons that arrive at each pixel to build the overall digital image. In a 21-megapixel 35mm digital camera such as the Canon 5D Mark II, there are about 20 photons hitting each sensor pixel in the darkest (shadow) areas of the image, assuming a perfect lens. That’s not very many, and it gets worse because of the way digital cameras deal with color. A red, green or blue lens covers each pixel so that only light of that color is detected at each pixel. Dividing 20 by 3, that’s just 6 or 7 photons arriving at each pixel.

Even with a super efficient sensor, this means there’s a lot of noise due to mis-counting of photons.  If we add more pixels to the sensor, the number of photons arriving at each pixel goes down because each pixel has to be smaller, which means more noise. That’s why adding more megapixels makes the photos more grainy, especially in shadow areas.

When it comes to image resolution, adding more megapixels helps the camera resolve more detail – up to a point. Adding more pixels reduces the pixel size on the sensor, which also increases the effects of diffraction, caused by the lens. Diffraction is a fact of life: Isaac Newton discovered that light beams spread into a circle pattern as they pass through an aperture such as the iris of a lens. Diffraction effects make pictures look “soft” and lack sharpness. Diffraction softness becomes more noticeable as sensor pixels get smaller because the diffraction circles spread over more pixels.

Too many megapixels can soften your photos

Newton showed that diffraction increases as the aperture gets smaller.  As the f-stop increases and the aperture of the lens gets smaller, diffraction increases. The point where diffraction starts to noticeably affect picture quality is called the diffraction limit. The diffraction limit for a 21-megapixel full-frame (35mm) sensor is f/10. This means that at f/11 or greater, the image will get softer and softer. The limit is f/8 for a 10 megapixel APS-sized sensor, and f/2.8 for a 12 megapixel pocket camera. Most pocket cameras don’t have a lens that offers that wide an aperture!

In other words, while adding megapixels initially increases camera resolution, there comes a point when it leads to noticeably softer pictures (as well as more noise). For example, in this New York Times review of a new, tiny Samsung ST80 14.2 megapixel pocket camera, the reviewer notices that “people and scenery in the background looked murky, and the photos lacked crispness”. Recall that to get a sharp picture on a pocket camera of 12 megapixels, you need f/2.8 or better aperture to avoid softness from diffraction. The ST80 has 14.2 megapixels and a maximum aperture of f/3.3, so pictures are guaranteed to be soft from diffraction – in addition to the extra noise from pixels that are so tiny you can fit 50 million of them in an area the size of your fingernail.

With today’s cameras, don’t obsess over megapixels, and stick to lower pixel counts where possible — especially with pocket cameras, where the limitation in picture quality is more likely to be the lens rather than the sensor.

Think twice about:

  • Any full-frame (35mm) SLR with more than 25 megapixels
  • Any APS sensor (“cropped”) SLR with more than 15 megapixels
  • Any pocket camera with more than 11 megapixels

To find a camera with low megapixel count, use DPreview.com’s Camera Statistics pages. For more than 1600 cameras, DPReview lists the number of megapixels per centimeter squared (cm2) — lower is better. For example, the Canon 1D mark IV has just 3.1 megapixels per cm2 as you might expect for high-end professional gear. The 5D Mark II has just 2.4 megapixels per cm2. The Canon SX210 pocket camera has 50 megapixels per cm2 as it’s a 14.1 megapixel pocket camera with a tiny sensor. Instead, consider the Canon S95 with a pixel density of 23 megapixels per cm2 — a 10 megapixel camera.

Traveling with photo gear is much harder than it used to be. Airport security is becoming more and more restrictive. US airport security now has a ban on carrying rechargeable batteries without a container: they must be in a case and not loose in your bag. Multiply this with airport security staff of little understanding and the full authority of Homeland Security, and life can be difficult. So what can you do to minimize traveling friction and get yourself and your gear to your destination safely?

1 Lodge Photo, France, architecture, blue, butress, cathedral, church, dame, east, eastern, flying, french, gothic, notre, paris, sunny, towers, verticals
Paris Notre Dame: Flying buttresses, not flying problems.

Carry on carrying on

Aim to carry on your photographic gear as it is best protected and handled by yourself rather than in checked baggage. Unfortunately, there are more and more restrictions on the number and weight of carry-on items, especially on international flights. If you are going to carry a heavy camera and lenses in hand baggage, it is essential to find the restrictions on hand baggage weight beforehand. Go to the airline’s website and read the small print. British Airways has no restrictions on hand baggage weight, while Virgin Atlantic has a 6kg (roughly 12lbs) limit. I have found that Air France is particularly strict and inflexible when it comes to carry on baggage weight, so I try to avoid traveling with them if possible for this reason.

You also need to check carry on items limits, which can be different when returning vs. flying out, and the UK is particularly problematic as different airlines have different policies. Some airlines even have different rules depending on your departure airport. For example, when flying Virgin Atlantic to London Gatwick from the US, you can take two carry on items. Flying from London Gatwick you’re allowed one. But if flying from London Heathrow, you can take two! Check the airline website or call the airline in advance, tell them where you are flying to and from, and find out.

I pack non-fragile photographic paraphernalia in Zip-lock bags in the middle of a suitcase so that it’s protected from moisture and shock. I carry by carbon fiber (lightweight) mono-pod this way too, along with brushes, filters, batteries, chargers, cables and the other non-valuable odds and ends. That leaves my carry-on for the most fragile and expensive gear: cameras and lenses.

Insurance and lost bags

Professional photographers typically carry insurance for their gear and liability. For non-professionals, check your household insurance policy. It typically covers possessions taken outside the home, with exclusions or limits for expensive items such as cameras — check to see what’s covered before buying extra insurance.

Finally, I also keep a minimal set of chargers and cables in my carry-on bag in case checked bags are lost — anything that I can’t re-buy easily at the destination. Airlines are now losing more bags per thousand carried than ever before, and when it happens, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your bags during your trip. After losing my bag on a direct flight recently, United Airlines returned it four weeks later, tattered and torn.

The golden rule of travel photography remains “keep your camera with you at all times”, and that includes your flights too.

Photographing fireworks can be straightforward if you follow a few basic steps:

1) You need a camera where you can control the shutter speed. Digital SLR owners will be fine — use manual or Shutter Priority modes, but also more and more “point and shoot” cameras now offer this kind of control. Very slow shutter speeds work the best because they offer the biggest chance of the shutter being open when the fireworks explode.

2) No flash required! Turn off any automatic flash or select a mode where the flash won’t pop up.

3) Find a good spot for composition where you can set up a tripod or put the camera on a stable surface. This photo was taken with the camera sitting on a concrete parapet. Ideally, have something in the composition that you can use for focus lock and metering. In the photo, the focus point and metering was taken from the bridge.

4) Avoid camera shake from pushing the shutter release. If you have a remote release cable, use it. If not, make do by using the automatic timer (designed for self-portraits) — push the release and then step away from the camera so it is completely stable when the timer expires and the shutter opens.

5) Select the lowest ISO you have on your camera. You want a long exposure, and at night low ISO means the shutter has to be open at least a second or two to collect enough light from the scene. Because the shutter will be open for a long time, the camera will be susceptible to noise. This means light noise (unwanted light from street lights, headlight reflections etc) and thermal noise (heat in the sensor that causes a film grain effect). The fireworks will be relatively bright, and so although they are short in duration they will be visible in the photo. This photo was taken at ISO 100.

6) Unless you are shooting directly up into the sky with no background, meter the scene where you’ll take the photograph to set exposure. This goes back to composition — choose a spot where you have something else for focus and to take a light reading. You can set focus and exposure, then move the camera to the final position for the shot — this is what I did with the bridge in the photo. If in doubt, err on the side of over-exposure. With so little light in the scene it is unlikely to be catastrophic. Take a few test shots before the fireworks start to check exposure.

7) Once the firworks start, take lots and lots of photos! You never know what you will catch. Keep on clicking! If you have time, use image review to check shutter duration. If you see “streaky” fireworks, consider shortening the exposure (you can use Shutter Priority mode to ensure you get the same exposure at a faster shutter speed), or dial up the ISO.

This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.

View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.
View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.

Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):

View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra
View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra

If you stand at night on the Northern edge of San Francisco, just along from the Bay Bridge on the Embarcadero, and look towards the island that anchors one end of the suspension bridge, you will see a flicker of tiny flashes of light by the water line. This is not some strange atmospheric phenomena, but camera flashes from visitors taking pictures of the San Francisco skyline at night. The sad part about this is that it can be seen pretty much every night and all of those pictures are not going to come out as expected — but it does illustrate the trouble many have with controlling camera flash.

San Francisco embaradero night skyline from Treasure Island

At the other extreme, there are those who have sworn never to use flash, ever. While I don’t agree with that, you can take a first step to improving the quality of photos taken with a compact camera by turning off the flash function. If you don’t know how to do it (and boy, do some manufacturers make it hard to figure out) then now is the time to look up flash in the manual and start reading.

So, when to use flash? A full answer is very complicated — lighting is a whole topic in its own right. But I like to make things simple, so I am going to take a few liberties and boil flash usage down to two questions, in this order:

Question 1: Is the thing you’re photographing more than 15 feet from the camera? If so, turn off the flash. Built-in flashes have limited reach, so they won’t illuminate anything more than 15 feet or so away. This is where those folks trying to photo the San Francisco night skyline with the flash turned on are going to be disappointed: Yes, flash is for things in the dark — so long as they’re close.

When flash is turned on, the camera shutter speed is typically locked at 1/60th of a second. Even with the lens aperture as wide open as possible, this will not let nearly enough light enter the camera for dark subjects like the San Francisco night skyline, so not only does the flash not illuminate anything, but the picture will come out dark. By turning flash off, you give the camera a chance to pick a good exposure that lets in enough light. It will be far too long for you to hand-hold the camera, so you need to set it down on a wall or other stable surface to keep it still. Ideally, you should turn on the “self portrait” timer, press the button, then step back (hands off the camera so there’s no shake) and let the shutter fire automatically.

Question 2: Is the subject in the dark, or in strong light? The definition of “dark” is a bit wishy-washy: anything indoors qualifies as “dark”, really. The good news here is that your camera will likely tell you when it’s too dark and you need to turn on the flash. If only cameras told you when it was OK to turn flash off, too!

Flash is also good for subjects in very bright sunlight or other strong light, because that causes strong shadows on the subject. By turning on the flash you can “fill in” the shadows with light (again, for any subject that is close) and improve your pictures.

And that’s the basics of flash. Got any photo tips? Tell us all about them by commenting on this article.

Cadogan’s guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

On a recent trip to Asia, I was browsing an electronics duty free store in Tokyo airport, chock full of the latest cameras. Not being able to read Japanese, the only recognizable characters in the displays were the numbers — the number of megapixels, for the most part.

And that made me think, because this figure has become so important to digital camera sales. More megapixels sounds like a great idea, because it means more resolution for your pictures — they’re clearer and can be made into larger prints – right? Well, not quite. It’s possible an older camera with fewer megapixels actually produces cleaner, more detailed pictures.

More megapixels are not necessarily better because of some physical constraints. The size of the sensor chip that collects the light and makes the image is fixed, so more megapixels means that the individual photo sites (pixels) on the sensor get smaller if more megapixels are added. This is a problem because, in general, smaller pixels mean more noise. Noise shows up like film grain in a picture – it’s a measure of the difference between the actual light level and that measured by the photo site. In other words, it’s an error in the light reading. Smaller sensors are prone to more errors for physical reasons that are complicated to explain… and I’m not going to go into that level of detail here. The net is that more megapixels mean smaller light sensor sites, and therefore more “grain” in your pictures.

Professional digital SLRs have “full frame” (i.e., 35mm-sized) sensors, which is one reason why professionals prefer them – the image is “cleaner” since there is less noise. So if this is the case, why the obsession with cramming more megapixels onto the sensor? In the early days of digital cameras, the manufacturers were able to reduce the noise level of the sensor sites at the same time as putting more of them into the same space, through better manufacturing and design technology. So there really was an improvement in the camera. We got used to more megapixels meaning better pictures. The problem is that this isn’t always the case any longer, and yet we expect the same improvement.

This is particularly the case for compact (palm-sized) digital cameras, which have teeny tiny sensor pixels. They’re made at the limits of chip manufacturing technology and adding more megapixels definitely means more noise – grainer pictures – for these cameras. Manufacturers include a lot of “noise reduction” software in the cameras to compensate, which reduces noise at the expense of making the pictures more blurry and lacking in definition (detail).

“Pro-sumer” SLR cameras, like the Canon 40D, are a different story. Here, Canon has been able to increase the quality of the sensor sites and the tiny micro-lenses that sit over them, so that going from 10.1 megapixels (40D) to 18 megapixels is accompanied by an overall reduction in noise. Yes, more megapixels but less noise. The question is whether this can continue for the follow up to the 50D that is inevitably in the works.

The net: when choosing a camera, especially a compact, consider whether it has too many megapixels by finding out how much noise and blurring (from noise reduction) there is in the final pictures. You might be better off with an older, cheaper camera with fewer megapixels. Check out a good review website like www.dpreview.com to find out how the camera’s pictures perform versus the competition.

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).

Clos de Vougeot

It’s an attractive building in its proportion, and also maintains its beautiful Medieval wooden ceiling. As wine critic Jancis Robinson put it in an article recounting an evening spent eating and drinking there, “I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.

But let’s not forget why the place exists: wine! The monks were the first to grow grapes, and split the harvest into three given the different quality of grapes from the upper, middle and lower portions of the land — the best being the well-drained upper corner near the Chateau. Today, this same land is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros an acre (hectare?) and there are more than 80 owners. There is no cheap wine made here, but its saving grace is that none of it is bad in any way, shape or form. Yes indeed, this is fine Burgundian wine and well worth splurging on a bottle with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Only a little drinking had taken place when this photograph was taken at dusk in November. But we remedied that later. I had no tripod or monopod with me that day, and so the camera was balanced on top of the iron gate at the entry to the courtyard, using the timer function to avoid camera shake: I could push the shutter release to start the timer and then step back to let the camera be still for the exposure. A short 18mm focal length framed the building nicely, and also helps to minimise the effect of any vibration or movement in the camera. I dialed up the ISO to 400 to keep the exposure time reasonably short (0.4 seconds) given the balancing act. I used the camera’s center-weighted metering off the stone of the building in Program mode, and it was absolutely spot on for the sky and the courtyard.

The Bay Bridge over San Francisco Bay, and fireworks bursting in the distance. Who could have planned it better? Well, not me, that’s for sure!

Fireworks burst near San Francisco Bay Bridge to celebrate Barry Bonds' 661st home run at SBC Park. California, USA

I drove to Yerba Buena island to take pictures of the city at night. I had just set up my camera to take photos of the bridge and San Francisco when fireworks started going off over SBC Park (as it was called at the time — now AT&T Park). I turned my camera to the left, exposed for 5 seconds and carried on taking pictures until the fireworks were over. Perhaps the best photo of the lot is the one shown. The “cause celebre” for the fireworks was the 661st home run of Barry Bonds — the most ever home runs in Major League baseball.

The trick with this kind of photography is usually to expose for long enough to get the picture you want. I learned to do long exposures on film, which responds differently to digital sensors in today’s DSLRs. With film, if you want any kind of color you have to expose for long enough to allow the color to register in the chemicals in the film. Overexposure of the white or black areas of th image doesn’t matter because there’s not much light to begin with. If the exposure is too short you get a picture, but it’s essentially monochrome (usually orange with color negative film, as this is the underlying film color base). So I learned to take a light reading for the overall light level (luminance) and then bump up the exposure time to get good color (chromiance).

With digital this isn’t necessary as it “sees” the color in the exposure anyway, but in this case it serves to blur the moving traffic on the Bay Bridge so that the detail of the cars doesn’t distract from the overall composition of the image. There are several hundred cars on the bridge during this exposure, but you don’t see them because their tail lights all blur together along with the orange reflection from the lights on the cars themselves. They just disappear.

If you want to take this kind of photo with a typical compact camera, you need to remember to turn off the flash for two reasons: Firstly, it will be pointless – the flash gun is never going to illuminate the Bay Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Secondly, it also sets the exposure incorrectly and you get a dark image (not enough light is let into the camera at typical flash exposures).

On the front page of Lodge Photo is a crop from a photo showing a man on a horse with a lance, tilting at a strange target. It’s one of a sequence of four:

Joust of the Saracens, Arezzo

This is the Giostra del Saracino – Joust of the Saracens – held twice a year in Arezzo, Tuscany.

Italy is alive with various contests that have been around for hundreds of years. Siena‘s twice-a-year horse race, Il Palio, is thought to be the world’s longest running sporting event. In a world of disappearing traditions, it is worth a moment’s thought to ponder why. If you go to one of these events then I think it becomes clearer. These events are form of social cohesion, fun and commerce for the communities within the towns. As one eager participant in the enormously popular Siena Palio explained it to me: “The Palio is an excuse to have fun with your friends for a week”.

In Arezzo, the joust has not run continuously like the Palio; it was resurrected some years ago as a way for the town to come together and, let’s be honest, as a way to boost tourism. It takes place in early September on the day of San Donato, the town’s patron saint. There are four main districts of the town – a bit like Siena’s Contrade – each with their own colors and contestants. The jousters ride towards an effigy of a Saracen King, who holds a target in the crook of one wooden arm. The lance is tipped with chalk and the contestant gains points for accuracy. The other arm holds a “cat-o-three-tails” – three leather strips with heavy wooden balls attached. These swing around and the jouster has to dodge them or risk being dislodged from his horse. The winner of the tournament is presented with a golden lance, that part of the town goes wild, and vast quantities of wine are consumed.

The photo sequence you see was taken the evening beforehand during practice. This is a good way to get better photo access than you would at the event itself (this also works, to a certain extent, for the Palio). The light was declining rapidly as the contestants warmed up and took their turns, which presented a problem. Flash wasn’t an option as it would have upset the contestants and wouldn’t have illuminated the entire scene. By using a fast (wide aperture) lens, dialling up the ISO sensitivity on the camera and selecting shutter priority mode, I was able to select a shutter speed that was fast enough to isolate the action but not so fast that the riders and horses appear completely frozen. This gives energy and a sense of action to the pictures while ensuring they’re properly exposed.

If you’re wondering why the Saracens (Turks) get such a rough deal, consider that when this tradition emerged during the middle ages, the Turks were surging through Eastern and Southern Europe: a clear and present danger to Italian principalities.

I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers — “The Manhattan Of Tuscany”, as some tours call it.

San Gimignano and two of its famous towers
San Gimignano towers

It’s certainly on the tourist map these days, so here’s my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.

No-one should be rushed on a Tuscan vacation, so plan on arriving in time for lunch. Use the plentiful parking outside of the town and walk up the hill through the fortified gateway, heading for the Piazza della Cisterna — unmistakable for the well in the center. There you’ll find Hotel Cisterna; skip the tables outside and head inside and up the stairs to their restaurant “Le Terrazze”, with its fine views across the Tuscan hills. Settle in at a table with a view, and order their Asparagus Ravioli and a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano — grown on the slopes you can see from the windows. The ravioli is their speciality — fresh hand-made pasta with a beautiful green asparagus filling and sauce… to die for.

Remember this is Italy, so a couple of courses and some coffee or digestif is likely to take you a few hours — but that’s OK, because the light outside will be harsh and bright and not conducive to good photography. Float down the steps on your food high, past the well and into the Piazza del Duomo. Head into the cool interior of the 12th century church to get away from the heat of the day and marvel at the 14th and 15th century fresco cycles, the chapel and baptistry and museum of sacred art next door.

If shopping is your thing, then now is also a good time to wander down the streets checking out the local artwork, clothing, wine and food.

Wild boar and other local specialities
Wild boar and other local specialities

Heading back to the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll find the Museo Civico, where you can take in the artwork and also work off what’s left of lunch by climbing the steps to the top of Torre Grossa — the big tower. In theory, after a local ordnance issued in 1255, no other towers were supposed to be taller than the Torre della Rognosa, which you can see directly across the square from the church (duomo). In practice, as you can see with your own eyes, this was largely ignored — the very essence of Italian bureaucracy. By now, the sun should be much further down in the sky, making for better light and some great shots looking over the town to the Tuscan hills all around.

After the climb back down the tower, you might be in need of a pick-me-up, so head back to Piazza della Cisterna for ice cream at the award-winning Gelateria di Piazza. As the sun heads towards the horizon, the tour bus crowds melt away, leaving you to take great photographs in the incomparable Tuscan “golden hour”, as the locals come out for passagiata and to enjoy the evening.

Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine
Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine

Judging by the comments on photography sites, many people have yet to upgrade Adobe Photoshop CS3 to CS4, or Lightroom 1.x to 2.x. Adobe doesn’t update the Camera Raw plug-in for older versions of Photoshop, which is a problem because updates are the only way to get support for new camera models. The same problem exists for Lightroom, where a new version of the program is required.

The Canon 50D isn’t supported in Lightroom 1.4 — only version 2.x. While the 50D is supported in Camera Raw 4.6, which means you can use it with Photoshop CS3, owners of the 5D Mark II are not so lucky: no support in Lightroom 1.4 and no support in Photoshop CS3 either; it’s supported in Camera Raw 5.2 which only works with Photoshop CS4.

To solve this problem, use the latest version of Adobe’s free DNG (Digital NeGative) converter to translate the RAW files from newer cameras into .DNG files. Lightroom 1.4 and Photoshop CS3 can open any DNG file, regardless of the original camera type. The DNG converter can be found here, and there are PC and Mac variants. It is updated at the same time as the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop when new camera support is added.

It works in batch mode — you point it at a directory (folder) full of RAW files and it grinds away creating DNGs in another directory. Taking the long view, DNG is probably a better file format for archiving images because it is open, unlike the proprietary camera-makers’ RAW file formats.