Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2014 Jeff Wignall.

"Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better."


Albert Einstein

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Question of Sharpness in the Deep Woods

I took a short hike the other day in a state park about 10 miles from my home, mainly just to scout a stream that leads to a small but very pretty waterfall (this shot is the stream, not the waterfall). I brought a camera, one lens (the wrong one, I think) and a tripod. The place was still as mysterious and pretty as I recall and I spent more than an hour shooting, despite the fact that the sun had already gone below the western ridge and so it was like hiking in very deep twilight at times. There were also more mosquitoes than I had anticipated!

Anyway, as anyone who knows me already knows, I'm not a big spender when it comes to camera gear. That's mostly a financial consideration, by the way, I have nothing against owning great cameras and lenses, but I've rarely had the funds to do that. But there is one thing I demand of most of my photos: ultimate sharpness. And that is why I'm so frequently disappointed by my images: I simply don't own the high-end lenses that I need to do the type of work I know I'm capable of--and it's intensely frustrating at times.

Take, for example, the shot above. I did everything I know how to do to make a sharp photo. I used a moderately heavy-duty tripod, used a fairly good (not great) Nikkor lens, was careful to clean the front glass and the filter and used a self-timer to activate the shutter so that I didn't jiggle the camera (using the timer is a good idea, by the way). And yet, the photo is not nearly as sharp as I'd like. I've examined about two dozen frames from that day and I'm simply not sure where the fault lies. I was shooting at ISO 400, which should not be a noise or quality concern. And for most of the shots (not this one) I shot at a very small f/stop (f/22 on most shots) to get good depth of field and, again, I use a tripod for everything. I rarely shoot without a tripod.

There are several possible things that can make a photo unsharp:
  • Using a poor-quality lens
  • Using too small an aperture (even though this provides more depth of field, it may also cause optical issues and most lenses are sharpest at their middle aperture, around f/8 or f/11)
  • The camera was jiggled during exposure, even if you are on a tripod (a camera strap blowing in the breeze may have been the issue here, but I don't think there was a breeze)
  • Using too high an ISO can introduce "noise" that can soften an image
There are other potential issues, too, like where you are focusing (that changes the depth of field pattern). But as I said, I am very methodical and careful, so when I come home and the sharpness isn't there, I'm frustrated and it sends me to the expensive gear catalog wishing I had better lenses (that would help, by the way). I used an 18-70mm Nikkor here, an amateur lens--but one that is normally very sharp.

Anyway, perhaps I'm too critical (I'm not) or I just screwed up in some way. But I hate unsharp images. It has been an issue with me since I was 10 years old. I do sharpen images in Photoshop (using the unsharp masking tool, but in a somewhat complex way that a friend showed me) and it helps. But when I look at my old 4 x 5-inch negs and see what real sharpness is, I know when an image falls short. That brings up another issue: sensor size. Bigger sensors are better.

So, I'll continue to fight this battle. And if I win the lottery or if book publishers ever stop screwing me out of royalties (don't ask), I'll buy better gear.

But I know one thing for sure: my next digital SLR will have a full-frame sensor. The bigger the sensor, the bigger the pixel and the bigger the pixel, the less I'll whine about sharpness. Please feel free to leave comments.

I'm thinking of self-publishing my next book, by the way--if you have any experience in ebooks, let me know how you did.

Photo notes: This shot was shot nearly wide open at f/4.5 and so has very little depth of field, but is, oddly enough, sharper than the images shot at f/22 or f/25. It was exposed for 1/6 second at ISO 400.

Friday, September 23, 2011

So Long Summer, Hello Autumn

I shot this photo the day after Hurricane Irene, near the seawall in Stratford, Connecticut (where I live). It seems like a fitting end-of-summer photo. I love summer, hate winter, and it's always very difficult for me to say goodbye to summer. I'll especially miss summer nights on the porch with my kitties listening to the crickets and other insects, watching them chase big June bugs up the screens and the three of us sitting still-as-a-picture when a skunk comes wandering down the path. Fun nights. And the cats love that I sit out there and experience the night with them. 

This was a tough summer for me for many reasons and I don't think I got out of it what I should have. I spent a lot of time in spring gardening and then just let the gardens go. I lost the inspiration, I guess and had to do a lot of writing just to get by. But we only get so many summers in our lives and we should work hard to squeeze the most of each one. The other night the cats and I sat on the porch until 2 a.m. because I just didn't want them to miss the last nights of summer. It was very peaceful.

Autumn is nice, too, and it used to be my favorite season. But it also reminds me that cold winter is coming, that I'll probably run out of oil again, that we'll be snowed in for days, if not weeks at a time. Last winter is a pretty dark memory: more than 10' of snow in southern Connecticut and the cold was relentless. But autumn colors always revive my spirits a bit--they're just so mysterious and beautiful to watch. And there are still quite a few bugs out in the yard even into late October.

I also miss the warm days for shooting photos. I'm about to start a new book and need lots of photos, but haven't been able to afford to travel as I usually do to illustrate a new book, so this will be an interesting challenge. What I need is a week in Key West (home of the eternal summer). It probably won't happen, but that daydream will get me through the shorter days that are coming! 

Speaking of which, here's a nice thought: in 89 days the days start getting longer again. The winter solstice means more to me for that reason than any other holiday. I count down the days every year. So, farewell to summer 2011, I can't say it was one of my best summers, but thank you God for all summers. And I hope a new ocean of prosperity washes over all of us and that we have a very warm and beautiful autumn--as I know we will.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The P T Barnum Museum in Bridgeport

I shot this on Saturday in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut--it's the P T Barnum Museum on Main Street. I don't believe I've ever been in the museum, but drive by it a lot. I was actually downtown to shoot another old building and when I finished there, I took a little cruise around town to see if there was anything else worth shooting. As I came up Main Street I saw the Barnum building glowing in the late-afternoon sun. I've shot a lot of these reddish-colored buildings in various cities and they just seem to glow from within when that late light hits them. I think this building was built in the late 1800s, so this red stone must have been a big thing then. The building, sadly, suffered quite a lot of damage from a tornado on June 24, 2010 and is closed for extensive repairs. Hopefully some organization with very deep pockets will pony up some much-needed money and keep this small corner of Bridgeport's history alive (did you know that P T Barnum was once the mayor of Bridgeport?)

My radio partner Ken Brown and I came up with an idea to rename the city of Bridgeport "Barnumopolis"and I still think it's a great idea. So, if you happen to know the current mayor, just put in a good word for the new name. Barnumopolis! Doesn't that sound better than Bridgeport? Let's start a movement!

Tragically, even without the help of tornadoes, most cities are doing away with all of their best architecture and destroying their own architectural heritage. But you know what Barnum is credited with saying (though I'm told he never said it): "There's a sucker born every minute." If we let them tear down our architectural past, we're the suckers, no doubt.

Photo notes:  Shot with a Nikon D90 and an 18-70mm Nikkor zoom. Exposure was (I think) 1/500 at f/10 on a tripod. I shot the image in RAW and it was processed using the Adobe DNG converter and Photoshop.

Questions: If you have any photo questions, I'm happy to try and answer them. If I don't get back to you immediately, write and remind me: thejoyofdigital AT optonline DOT net. 

My new book: My new book Exposure Photo Workshop was recently released and it's been called (by Shutterbug Magazine) "...possibly the best book ever written on the subject." If you're looking for an interesting read with hundreds of my photos, I hope you'll give it a look. Thanks!

Friday, September 9, 2011

9-11: In Memory of Peter Hanson

Today's posting is one that I posted originally on 9-11-2010 and tonight I was rereading some of my 9-11 postings (I've run a few) and looking at some related photos and I came across this and decided it deserves re-publishing. One thing you will notice that's different comes up in the final paragraph. Also, I mention another 9-11 photo toward the end of this entry and I will publish that photo again on Sunday. Please take a moment to follow the link to a letter from Peter Hanson's mother below. And by the way, if you're never been to the Statue of Liberty in person (though I'd see her dozens of times, I didn't go out to Liberty Island until a few years ago), make plans to do it this fall--you will never think of America or liberty or 9-11 in the same way again:

As far as I know I didn't know any of the people who died on the airplanes that day, but one was a regular listener to the noncommercial FM radio station where I have done radio for many years (WPKN). Here is the story of that day and a link to a memorial page about him:

I had been up all night writing the previous night and was sleeping (what else is new?) when the planes hit the WTC and my friend Lynne called around 10:30 a.m. and woke me and asked: "Are you watching the news?" And then she told me: "The World Trade Center is gone, the Pentagon has been bombed and there are other planes still in the air that they believe have been hijacked."

I thought she was joking, but I flipped on the local Connecticut TV station and the first thing I heard was the reporter saying he'd just spoken to a person that paid a cab several hundred dollars to drive a car full of people out of the city. Everyone thought the entire city was under attack and they just wanted to get back home.

I was scheduled to do my radio show at 2 p.m. and so I just got up and went to the station. We had no idea what to do but we just kept doing "rip and reads" from the AP and relaying things we heard online on CNN, ABC, etc. We're a small noncommercial station, so we had no reporters anywhere on such short notice. Instead, we just opened the phone lines and let people talk or give us bits of news.

A friend of mine, a good reporter named Ken Best, came and joined me on the air and together we took a lot of calls. Most of the calls were either updating us on what other stations were saying--remember, this was happening live and we were on the air live, there was no delay--and people were calling to sympathize, rant or whatever.

About four that afternoon a regular listener (a guy we call the "Trailer Guy" because he lives in a trailer in the woods and calls whenever I'm on the air) called and told us that his best friend, and a guy that was a regular listener to the station when he was in Connecticut (he grew up here but moved to Massachusetts), was on United Flight 175. His name was Peter Hanson. We took Trailer Guy's call on the air (again, live, no delay) and he told us that he had just received a call from Peter's distraught father. Peter had called his father from the air and said he knew what was happening, knew what had happened to the first plane (United 175 was the second plane that flew into the WTC--the South Tower) and that he was just calling to say, "I love you Dad, goodbye."(I learned later that his parents actually watched live on TV as the plane hit the tower.)

There was utter silence at our end. Suddenly the whole thing became a personal, hometown tragedy and it was right in the room with us. Ken and I were devastated. Or should I say, more devastated.

Peter had his wife and daughter with him and he was taking them on a business trip and then to Disneyland. He was 32. His daughter Christine was two-and-a-half years old and was the youngest victim of 9-11. His daughter was very excited to be going to see Mickey and Pluto. Peter and his wife and daughter died, no doubt, curled in each others arms.

You can read a letter and a memorial from Peter's mother here.

One other odd thing about that day, that has never left me, was that because so many of our neighbors in southern Connecticut commute to New York every day, there were literally hundreds of cars in train stations that were not returned to that night. The police set up security at all the train stations to be sure the cars were left alone. Families went to the train stations and waited for husbands and wives and children, many of whom never came home.

Even today in Manhattan, you will see fading little signs with the photos and names of victims, signs that were posted in the days after the attack. People looking for their loved ones, their friends.

In yesterday's posting I ran a photo of a memorial to 9-11 in Jersey City, New Jersey, across the Hudson from where the towers stood. It is made of a beam of the WTC and is decorated with things that people have left: flags, angels, etc. When you come across this memorial in person, and then look up and see the gap in the skyline, it just about takes you to your knees.

And yet Bin Laden still walks this earth. Let's hope not for long--there is a place in hell waiting for him.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On the Neon Prowl Again...

I've been out on the prowl looking for neon signs again, hopefully to be used in a new book. It's not that easy to find great old neon where I live in Connecticut, but I've always liked this sign in a car dealer's window. I shot it while waiting for Mexican take-out food--the car place is just around the corner from the restaurant. Glad I had the camera with me. I didn't bother to unload a tripod (afraid a cop might ask why I was carrying a big tripod at night in a closed car dealership--you'd be surprised how much suspicion that draws for some crazy reason), but leaned on a handy sawhorse. I shot it with a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom (non-image-stabilized version--wish I could afford one!), but there was plenty of light: shot at IS0 640 1/160 second at f/10. There's an entire tutorial on photographing neon signs on my main site.

By the way, if you're in Connecticut or passing through, the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant is called Milford Pizza and is, oddly enough, a great Mexican restaurant--staffed by a really friendly group of Mexican cooks. It's in a small plaza a block in from the Post Road that you enter from Naugatuck Avenue (yes, by the little Devon Post Office). So that's my restaurant plug.

Here's my new book plug: My new book on Exposure, Exposure Photo Workshop is out and if you're interested in learning more about exposure, I think you'll like the book. It's got more than 300 of my photos and it will help you solve a ton of exposure problems. For under $20 it's a bargain on Amazon, too--it's nearly 350 pages and crammed with info.