Sunday, July 20, 2014

Digitally Restoring A Vancouver Island Rainforest

The west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia gets a lot of rainfall during the fall and spring seasons.   The moisture laden clouds hit the mountains of Vancouver Island and are forced up, causing them to cool and drop their moisture in the form of a lot of rain.  For those of you metrically challenged, 500 mm is almost 20 inches.  On average the coastal town of Tofino gets about 2,440 mm or about 96 inches of rain in the six months between November and April! 

When May arrives the rain is replaced by clear cloudless skies.  In the month of July they average 80 mm or about 3 inches of rain.   When we were there in mid-July this year we had clear blue skies every day with almost no clouds except for the fog that came in off the ocean in the afternoons.

Outdoor photographers have some strange ideas about what makes for good vacation weather.  A good time to take photos in a forest is on an overcast day.  It's even better if it's raining.   Now clear blue skies are beautiful but that bright sunlight can make taking photos a real challenge, especially where there are shadows and bright sunny spots.  The first version of the photo below was taken in a Vancouver Island rainforest on one of those bright sunny blue sky days.

Version 1 - Unedited

Notice the extreme contrast between the dark shadows and the bright spots on the boardwalk and ferns.   Those bright spots draw a viewers attention and create distractions that take away from the cool boardwalk and trees. In the original format this is not a photo that I would keep.   I did the following to save it.

First I used the Nik Color Efex software  detail extractor filter to bring back the details that were hard to see in the really bright and dark sections of the image.  If you compare the first and second versions you can see that the details have been extracted out of those areas and the lighting is a bit more even.  I also added a little tonal contrast and adjusted the color temp to take out the slight blue tint in the original version.

Version 2 - Nik Detail Extractor Filter

I then used the adjustment brush in Adobe Lightroom to further darken the brightest spots, gave the boardwalk a slight brown tint, further reducing the unnatural blue tint.  I also straighten the image and added a slight vignette to darken the outside slightly.

Version 3 - Bright spots further darkened.

The final version still shows enough of the shadows to let the viewer know it was a sunny day, but not so much that the bright spots are distracting.   It has more of a rainforest feel to it, unlike the original version.

Click on any image and then use your keyboard arrow keys to move between versions to see the difference.

I will be creating a Vancouver Island folder in my online gallery.  Check back to see more photos from our mid-July 2014 trip.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why I Shoot in Raw

OK, you non-photographers may be wondering about the blog title.  What in the world is shooting in raw and is it even legal?  Relax and I'll tell you what it is and why I use it almost all the time.

There are many formats that photos can be stored in.  Some are designed to preserves all the available information and others are designed to make files smaller while retaining most of the information.   Most  cameras are set to save the photos as JPEG files, which is a very common format that is designed to make files smaller by compressing the data, sometimes making the file 10% the size of the original.  This is important when you are storing a large number of photos on a computer, emailing the photos, or posting them on facebook or other photo sharing sites.   However, this compression comes at a price.  Some of the information captured by your digital camera has been thrown away when saved as JPEG format.  Also, when you take the photo in JPEG format, the camera applies some automatic edits before saving the file, including exposure, color, contrast, saturation and sharpening.  You can't easily undo these automatic edits if the file is saved in JPEG.

The alternative is to use a lossless format which keeps all the original information captured by the camera sensor.   Raw files are just that - raw unprocessed image files directly from the camera sensor.  None of the information has been lost and no processing has been applied to the file.  It is in it's original "raw" state.

The downside of raw files is they can be very large.   The ones that come out of my Canon 5D Mark ii are about 24 megabytes.   They can fill up a memory card pretty quickly and take a long time to download to a PC.  These raw files cannot be displayed or edited without some special software with raw converters, such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

On a recent hiking trip I overheard a group of photographers in the Raw vs. JPEG debate.   One made the statement that you really don't get much benefit from using the Raw format and JPEG was just as good.   I just went about my business shooting the scenery in Raw format without jumping in and telling them they really weren't right.   The best way to illustrate my point is by example.

Here's an unprocessed raw file from our trip to Korea.
Unprocessed Raw File

This is what you typically see when there is too much contrast in the photo.  The sky is "blown out" where you can't see any detail.  The structure on top of the wall is dark where you can't see details in the shadows.   The information in these areas is still there in the raw file and can be pulled out in a photo editor that supports raw format.

Raw file after editing

Here's the end result after editing the raw file.  You can see the clouds in the sky and the details in the structure that didn't appear to be there.   If I had taken the photo in JPEG format much of this information would have been discarded in the compression process.  I didn't take a JPEF format of this photo, but I can simulate it by converting the raw file into JPEG format.

In the photo below I started with a JPEG file and applied the same changes that I did to the raw file to see if there is really a difference.

JPEG after editing
At first glance, you might say they appear the same.  Look at the clouds in these two version.  Some of the cloud details are lost in the JPEG version.  Also, some of the details in the structure are not as clear in the JPEG version.  The best way to see the differences is to click on one of the photos to bring it up in a new window and then use the keyboard arrow keys to flip back and forth.

This is just one example.  The more extreme the shooting conditions the more valuable the raw format becomes.

Not all cameras support raw format.  All DSLRs and some mid-range  compacts do.   If you decide to try raw format, then remember you will need a software package to read and process the files.

More photos from our trip to Korea are available online in the Travel Gallery