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How do I take vivid, colorful landscape photographs?

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.

Lytro Light Field Camera Review

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.  

Buying a digital camera: when megapixels don’t matter

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.

How to photograph fireworks

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.

The Myth Of More Megapixels

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.