Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Diagnosing Motion Blur

I want to thank a reader (one of two or three that I have proof exist) for sending in an image to look at and see what we can learn. Before we look at the image let me tell you how I think about blur in an image, so that we can be on the same page.

To me there are mostly three types of blur in an image. There is focus blur, motion blur, and camera shake. Now I'm not writing a text book here so if these terms don't match what you read in the last photography book you read, don't worry too much, I think you'll get the gist of what I'm saying.

Focus blur is a focusing error that causes the intended subject to be out of focus. This happens when the camera decides to focus on some thing that wasn't what you were really trying to photograph. If you have a DSLR this is easier to fix than if you are using a point and shoot where it can be difficult to get it to focus on exactly what you want it to.

Motion blur is caused by your subject or by some thing else in the frame moving enough while the shutter is open to cause blurring.

Camera shake is similar to motion blur since it is related to shutter speed, but the difference is important as we will see soon.

So let's take a look at the image and see what's going on. The image below was taken at a wedding, and the bride and groom have been cut off to protect the innocent of course, not because the photographer didn't know what she was doing.

In this image, one of the first things we notice, is that the child is blurred. He seems to really be enjoying his cake. So what we want to figure out is, why is he blurred? To answer that question we can just go down the list of possible causes of blurring.

Focus blur doesn't look like the cause here. Take a look at the child's shirt, and the cake table. We can see that whatever is holding still, seems to be in reasonable focus.

Camera shake also doesn't seem to be the problem here. We know this because again, most of the photograph is actually in focus. If this were a result of camera shake, nothing would be in focus at all.

That pretty much leave motion blur as our culprit.

Now that we know what caused the blurring here we can work on strategy's for reducing problems like this in the future. There are really only two basic things you can do to stop motion blur, and all of the techniques you can think of will come from these two basic things.

You could increase your shutter speed. This would mean widening your aperture, increasing your ISO, or increasing the amount of light. Which one of those techniques you use is entirely up to you, the photographer, and they are strictly artistic decisions, so there aren't really any right or wrong answers. Some will be easier or more less expensive than others, but that's a discussion for another post.

Cheaper and easier still in many cases will simply be to remove any sources of movement in the photograph. This photograph was taken indoors, and one thing that might help is to think about indoor photography carefully. One thing that you might want to keep in mind, is that unless you are carting around flashes and other lighting all the time, whenever you are taking pictures indoor, it's probably a low light situation. This is especially true if it's night time outside and you are relying on the lighting fixtures in a room. This will almost always mean lower shutter speeds and the risk of motion blur. Your best bet might simply be to remove sources of motion from the photograph, like pets, kids, ceiling fans, etc.

If you have a photograph like this one that is making you scratch your head, or if you would like to hear about strategies you can use to prevent problems in your photographs, send me an email and we can talk about it. Until then keep an eye out, or better yet, add my RSS feed to your reader, and eventually I will get around to writing a post about EXIF data. Don't know what EXIF data is? Well whenever there is a break in my college course work I'll tell you, and believe me, it can make diagnosing photography problems a snap.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Taking Classes

If you're interested in improving your photography quickly, some times one of the best ways is go ahead and take a class. With an actual curriculum and classmates you might be surprised how quickly you can learn to take better photographs.

I bring this up because Kelly Abbot of Complete Photo Solutions has moved to Gilroy and is once again offering classes in everything from digital photography, to working with digital images on the computer, to scrap booking.

If you don't live in Gilroy, well I guess no body's perfect right? But you can probably still find a digital photography course near by. Just do a Google search and you can probably find a starving photographer nearby trying to make a little extra money, that would be willing to share some knowledge.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Big Picture

The Big Picture is one of my favorite photography blogs. If you aren't familiar with the site, they are a regular blog that posts large, high quality photographs in series concerning different subjects.

One of their last series is called Dog Sledding, and its great. Check it out if you have a minute.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Battle Scarred Camera

The verdict is in for my camera. It will not be getting fixed. Of course the one or two of you reading have noticed that I haven't been posting around here. When I get my camera back the posts should pick up a little bit. Oh yeah, my camera won't be getting fixed, but I will get it back. I just won't be able to use it for night work. So that's the news. See you future posts.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kid Picks

This guy takes photographing kids to a whole new level. Before any one asks, of course there is some photoshop work going on here, but man, who cares? These are great!

Monday, January 26, 2009


I had a nice post about tripods planned for quite a while, even hinted about it in other articles. But I ran into the slight problem that at some point, explaining everything really just turns into condescension and insulting a reader's intelligence. So here I present the shorter, sweeter version of what I had planned.

Whenever a person starts trying to learn more about photography and tries to stretch their limits, they will eventually run into the need to take pictures in low light conditions. If a person's skills are going to progress they simply must be able to take pictures in the early morning, late in the evening, or even during the night. Despite the leaps and bounds made in low light photography in recent years, the fact of the matter is that these conditions still absolutely require a tripod. There's just no way around it.

Now I understand where most people are coming from when they think about buying a tripod. You're thinking to yourself "This hobby is already expensive enough, what else do I need to buy?" Well here's my take on it.

Before you buy that next camera, before you buy the next great lens you have you're eye on or anything like that, get yourself a decent tripod. I don't know any other investment that will give you the bang for your buck that a tripod can. It doesn't have to be a six or eight hundred dollar carbon fiber tripod signed by some famous photographer either. Just some thing with a detachable mount plate, and a smoothly movable head. In the world of tripods, like many others, you do get what you pay for, but most of us really can get by very well with a mid to low range tripod. Just don't go too low, you'll only end up frustrated.

If any one has any questions about this feature or that feature by all means, drop me an email using the link to the right, but other than that there's really not much to it. Get one, enjoy the photographs.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

National Geographic Winners

National Geographic Traveler had a photo contest recently. They got some really great submissions. Here are the winners.


Absolutely the most retarded picture comparison I have ever seen. Congratulations guys, you did it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Polaroid stopped production of its instant film in June of 2008. Now it seems that a Dutch company, Impossible b.v., has purchased the factory and the rights to continue production.

Their plan is not to produce the same old film cartridges that go in your clunky Polaroid hidden in a closet some where. They want to gather all the experts and designers to create a new, better, more streamlined product.

I don't think this is going to replace any one's professional equipment. It was never intended to do that, nor should it be. But, aimed at the proper consumer market, they may have some modest sales ahead of them, provided the price is right. Of course by right I mean low!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Get Well Soon Steve

Some of you may or may not know, that I am a Mac user. My family got its first computer (as people think of them now, the actual first was a Commodore-64) in 1994, and from then until 2006 I was a PC user. Recently though I switched.

Many people switched because of Vista, some switched because of Mac OSX, others for the superior industrial design. Those were all part of the reason I switched of course, but I had some thing else in mind as well. Over the past couple years I have really come to admire the corporate culture at Apple, and I wanted to share with you a quote that I remembered and looked up today. You can find it at Fortune Magazines Web Site.

Asked what drives employees at Apple Steve Jobs said this:

"We don't get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we've chosen to do with our life. We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the [executive team] could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we've all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it. And we think it is."

Steve announced a couple days ago that he would be taking a leave of absence from his work for medical issues.

Get well soon Steve, we can't wait to have you back.

Friday, January 16, 2009


I came across this site today and got a membership immediately. If you want to see photography at some of its artistic finest go to 1x.com right now and have a look around.

It's Not That Bad

Ok, so I ranted and raved earlier in the week about how I needed to buy new flash cards. I said that in order to afford them I was going to have to turn to a life of crime, or at the very least sell a few of my less important organs.

Well it turns out to be not quite that bad after all. It turns out there are still a couple advantages to using a camera as old as mine. One of them is the fact that it won't even support the latest and greatest cards on the market, even if I could buy them. For reasons that only a computer geek like me would be fascinated by, my camera can only support cards up to a maximum of 2gb, and most of those use a format that it can't read.

What's a guy like me to do then. well buy a bunch of 1gb cards of course. The advantage is that any one that knows why they want a faster card, usually won't put up with a card as measly as 1gb, so I can get them cheap. I got four of these for six bucks each.

There is still a small chance that my camera won't be able to use these cards, but at that price, and with Amazon's return policy, why not give them a try right?

I think I should mention at this point though, that to realize any performance gains, there is still one more purchase to be made.

Flash memory cards are very finicky devices. Sure they work in most any device with the correctly shaped slot now days, but that doesn't mean that every device you use them with is giving you the same performance. When you are shopping for SD or CF cards, the manufacturer will tell you that they perform at ten or twelve or 30 megabytes per second, but thats not really the truth.

The truth is that different devices will interact with each card differently, and each card will interact with each device differently. If I were to buy these new cards and keep using my same cheap card reader I might see only a small gain in performance, or none at all. The unfortunate fact is that the only way to actually tell what kind of performance one type of card will give you with your card reader is to try it out and see.

With that in mind it was also necessary to upgrade my card reader. I picked up this one for a decent price.

Full Disclosure: I do not have an Amazon merchant account. Clicking on those links does not in any way support me or my photography habit. "But" you might say, "why don't you get an Amazon merchant account and start earning a little on side for the 'Get Bill a new camera fund'?" You know thats a pretty darned good idea, and maybe some day when I have enough readers I'll do that.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lessons Learned

I may write an instructional blog about digital photography, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned every day. For example, I learned this week that the kind of flash memory card you buy matters drastically more than I thought it did.

Before today, I thought that the speed of your memory card was primarily set by what type of memory card it was, whether it was CF or SD or SDHC or that kind of thing. It frustrated me to still be using a camera that takes SD because in my case, it was agonizingly slow.

Sure a person could go out and by an expensive Extreme IV card or some thing like that, but I thought only professionals would notice the difference. After all, its the same type of memory, how big could the difference be right? Huge!

To illustrate what I’m talking about I am going to start by briefly talking about the kind of flash memory that most camera’s use. Usually if you have a digital camera you will use one of two main kinds of memory cards. SD cards are used for consumer level (and please don’t take that to mean inferior quality or bad) camera’s, while professionals use CF cards almost exclusively. There are exceptions to this rule, but with recent higher capacities in SD cards it will usually hold at least for the camera’s now on the market.

My camera uses SD (which stands for Secure Digital in case you’re curious) cards. It is a smaller card that allows the camera itself to be smaller. My camera is older and cannot support cards larger than 2gb, and not even some of those, but newer camera’s should be able to support larger capacities like 4 and 8 gigabytes.

Other cameras use CF (Compact Flash) cards, which despite their name are in fact larger than SD cards. These larger cards allow for higher capacities and faster read and write speeds, though as I recently found out, newer SD cards are narrowing the gap.

For my discovery to make any sense we have to talk about what read and write speeds are and why they matter.

As the name implies, read and write speeds are a measurement of how fast a card can store data (write speed) and how fast it can transfer it back out (read speeds). The way these speeds are measured is usually in one of two ways. The first way, that I don’t enjoy very much, is as a multiplier of “x”, i.e. 1x, 2x and so on. It can be difficult to find out exactly what 1x is, but it’s usually taken to mean 150kb/s, or 150 kilobytes per second. Cards now come in speeds like 60x or 20x with some on either side of that figure. A card with an x multiplier of 60 has a rated speed of about 9mb/s or 9 megabytes per second (One megabyte being about 1,000 kilo bytes).

The second way cards are rated, and the way I will use, is to just give the speed in kilobytes or megabytes per second. A card that reads and writes at 150kb/s is sixty times slower than a card that reads and writes at 9mb/s.

Take a look at this web site and we can see the kinds of read and write speeds that people getting with their cards now days. The important thing that caught my eye was how widely the numbers vary. Looking at the chart I can see test results that range from 21mb/s all the way down to 3mb/s and less. That’s a HUGE difference!

In practical terms lets say we are dealing with a 4 gigabyte card that is full of photographs. A gigabyte is a thousand megabytes, so if your card is operating at 3mb/s it should take you about  22 minutes to get all of those photo’s onto your computer, probably a little more. But lets take that same data transfer of 4gb and do it at 21mb/s. That knocks your transfer time down to about 3 MINUTES! WOW!

Having discovered the wide disparity between the speeds of these cards I decided to see how my own cards were performing. I went to this web site and downloaded a card speed tester1. The results were not good, but at least I know now why I was so frustrated every time I needed to download pictures to my computer.

Can you guess how fast my cards transfer? I’ll give you a hint, its not 21mb/s, it’s not even 3mb/s. All of mine came out to less than 900kb/s! How bad is that? Remember that at 3mb/s it took more than 22 minutes to transfer 4gb, well at 900kb/s it would take about 74 MINUTES! Almost an hour and fifteen minutes! As I said above I don’t actually have 4gb cards as my camera only supports 2gb or smaller, but still, that’s 37 minutes per card. If you’re like me, and you can go out shooting and fill up two 2gb cards and part of a 1gb card, that is a LOT of time to wait to get your pictures on to your computer.

I paid about ten dollars each for my memory cards, and I thought I was getting a decent deal, but the days of cheap memory cards are over for me. Of course this means that my photography habit just got even a little bit more expensive than in already was. Long term I was planning on eventually trying to make a little money with my camera, but it looks like my habit could soon outstrip the profit potential of selling photographs. I may have to skip it and start selling easier products with a higher profit margin…… like cocaine or some thing. Do you think there are photography clubs in jail?

  • Notes:
    • 1 The program is Windows only and in German by default. Click the little button in the upper left to switch to english. The download link can also be difficult to find. Look for the blue link that says "Direct Download Of Software For version 1.4 of H2testw". It's just above the start of the comments.
    • If you have a Mac you don't need to download anything. Open the Activity Monitor, Click on disk activity below the process list, and click on the data button below the moving graph. Then transfer a large file to the card and as it writes you can see the write speed to the left of the moving graph.

Friday, January 9, 2009

I think we're in the clear

It would seem as though my little technical difficulties might be taken care of. I made just a small, little teeny tiny change to my formatting to make up for the shambles that Internet Explorer makes of the CSS specification, and it seems to have worked.

Now that the crisis is over I can move on to other things again. Soon I think I will do a post on picking a tripod, but not just on picking a tripod. I mean picking a tripod the way a normal person with financial limitations picks a tripod.

There are plenty of tripods out there for people that are making their living with their camera, and there are plenty of tripods out there for people that forgot their tripod and just want to pick one up from the guy on the sidewalk. Well as with most things, the best option for most of us lies some where in the middle, you just have to know what you're looking for.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Technical Dificulties

I found out tonight that there is a problem with some of the images on this blog.

Every once in a while as I am writing a post I like to give examples of what I mean in the form of an image rollover effect. It just means that I ask you to put your mouse over an image and it changes into a different one to illustrate a point. Well, it has come to my attention that the method I am using for this does not always work in Internet Explorer.

I haven't figured out why yet but I am working on it. I will either find a solution soon or find another method to get this done. In the mean time the work around is to just load the page again and see if it works.

Sorry for any confusion.

*Update: I have tested with a few browsers already and all but Internet Explorer seem to be unaffected on both Mac and Windows. If you are using a browser besides Internet Explorer and run into this problem please let me know.

*It might be premature but I may have just found my problem. In the process I discovered another slight problem, but I know the solution to that one.

White Balance Cards

For those of you that are well versed in White balance, did you know that there is a difference between a white balance card and an 18% grey card?

Well I consider myself fairly well versed in white balance, but Michael Tapes over at rawworkflow.com taught me a a thing or two about how to no kidding properly measure white balance.

Take a look at these videos and you can tell how much this guy cares about his products.

Tweaking Your Photos

Every once in a while some one decides to make me feel special and ask me about my photography workflow. Inevitably this leads to a conversation about what photo software I use for my pictures.

Without getting into what software I use for the moment I wanted to take this chance to talk about what post processing is and my own opinion on you can and can't do before you can no longer call some thing a "photograph" and have to start calling it art more in the sense of a painting or collage.

There are purists out there for whom no amount of digital post processing is acceptable. Let me tell you first of all that I am not one of those purists. People seem to think that if you present anything but exactly what came out of the camera as a photograph that you are being dishonest in some way. This has never been the truth. Even in the days of film and dark room, the choice of papers and chemicals, the method you chose for development, and any number of other decisions that I don't know about, had a huge effect on the end result of the print.

Today any single digital capture can result in many many different variations. Changing the color balance, the contrast, or anything like that can all be done after the capture to create the image the photographer wants. The purist scoffs and say's that in the old days it had to be done right the first time. He idealizes the past without knowing the truth.

The truth is that photographers in the dark room had many tools at their disposal to get the images the wanted. They had dodging and burning, filters, different papers, all kinds of things like that. In some cases photographers would take an exposure for the sky, and then another for the real subject, and then insert the sky from the first exposure into the second in a process called "combination printing". Does that sound familiar to anyone? This is the same thing by more controllable means.

What's the difference between then and now? Really it's just the ease with which we can accomplish our adjustments. Sure I can change the color balance, add sepia tones to black and whites and all sorts of things like that, but really you have to respect the amount of work that it took to do it in a dark room don't you?

So in this day and age when an innocent portrait can be so easily manipulated into a scandalous embarrassment, where is a person to draw the line?

Well if you ask me (and thanks for asking) I think it all comes down to the comfort level of the photographer and how original he is representing his work to be. I have no problem adjusting white balance, tweaking exposure a bit, even getting rid of dust spots, and I feel no need to give a disclaimer that a photograph is manipulated. If you are shooting RAW like I do (I know I know, its not necessary, but I do) you have even less reason to warn anyone about it as I'll talk about some time.

What I won't do is add or remove anything that changes the content of the photograph, or makes it look like I am significantly more skilled than I really am. I don't like to remove bystanders, swap out a dreary or over exposed sky for a better one, or do anything else that would make the scene that I saw unrecognizable in the final photograph.

Thats not to say that I don't do some light digital art, I do, but I don't try to pass it off as photography in the normal sense.

So why am I saying this? What does it mean for you? It means that you should feel confident taking your pictures and then adjusting them to taste as you please. Don't let any one tell you that you are some how less of a photographer because you like to adjust them how you like them. I certainly prefer to get them as close to my final goal in camera as I can, but thats because I take hundreds of images at a time and adjusting them all would be a pain no matter how good my software was.

I just wanted to point out one last thing before I wrap this up. There is another reason to get photo's as close to right the first time as possible. Take a look at this image below.

This is a picture of the cathedral inside the Chateau De Versailles in Paris. As you can see it isn't very good. You can roll your mouse over and see what I did to try and fix it. The results are underwhelming, and for one important reason. Lightroom doesn't have a crappy composition tool. I can crop out whatever that is the upper left, but that won't fix all the incomplete columns or the slightly disorienting tilt it has going on. I show you this picture as an illustration of the fact that no amount of software can replace the skill of the photographer in taking the right picture. Sure you can fix color in some cases, and you can fix exposure some times, but the software doesn't decide when to press the shutter button.

At the bottom of this post you will find the version I chose to post online. Sure I tweaked the color balance, and the camera didn't actually see the scene that brightly, but I took that photograph and I don't hesitate to call it original.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Bad News

So I have a small bit of bad news. I don't actually have my camera anymore. There are camera's in the house, but mine is gone right now. It has a problem that really just became too much and I had to send it in for repair.

My main camera that I sent in is a Nikon D50, and this is a good time to talk real quick about the problem it's having.

The problem is with a feature that many digital camera's use now called "Long Exposure Noise Reduction". We can get into a more detailed discussion of noise soon here but for this post let's just talk about what long exposure noise reduction does for us, and what my camera's malfunction was doing to my photo's

Whenever you take photo's with a digital camera, inevitably you get some thing called noise. Don't go feeling too superior if you shoot film because film shooters get some thing similar called grain. Digital noise is a result of the fact that your camera's is trying to convert some thing that is not digital (light hitting the sensor) into some thing that is digital (the signals it sends to the image chips inside the camera).

The problem is that digital signals are very clean and certain, either a 1 exists or a 0 exists. When a digital device receives a 1 or a 0, it is certain of what it has received. But the real world is not that certain. The light hitting your cameras sensor isn't just there or not there, it has infinite variations of color or intensity. Your camera's sensor has to find a way to describe those infinite variations using a limited set of numbers, and it isn't always certain which one to choose. It gets worse though, the same intensity of light will not always result the sensor choosing the same numbers. Some times a certain level of light hitting the sensor will cause it to send a signal and some times it won't.

Don't worry though, it gets worse still! Your sensor is composed of millions of tiny little sensors like the compound eye of a fly. When you put a bunch of the together on a sensor and shine the same color and intensity of light at all of them, they will not all agree on what it is that they are seeing.

The result is that if you were to take a picture of just a blue sheet of paper, or any thing else that is the same color and brightness, the picture you will get from the camera will not look uniform and smooth. Some pixels will be slightly red, some of them slightly bluer, some of them will be brighter and some of them will be dimmer than they should be. We call these variations noise.

Ready for an example? Take a look at this picture to the right. I have it zoomed in to 100% so we can see the noise better so I'll tell you that we are looking up at a building at night. At the top you see the roofline and the night sky and looking lower you see a window with the doors open and flowers coming out of it.

The first thing we want to look at that will show us the noise most dramatically is the night sky at the top of the image. See all those red spots? Of course those weren't actually there, but the sensor said it saw them because it wasn't really sure what it was seeing. The fact is of course that it wasn't seeing anything, but it told the image chips that it saw red spots.

Now look at the building. Here you can see all kinds of red spots and blue spots along with tiny spots that are brighter or darker than they should be.

All of these spots of red and blue and dark and light are the result of noise and an image that has a lot of it called "noisy". An image that is smooth without much noise called a "clean" image.

Noise to one degree or another is just an unavoidable fact of life in digital photography, but your camera does the best it can to deal with it. One of the strategy's it uses is called "Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

One of the peculiarity's of digital image noise is that the longer it takes to capture the image, the worse the noise is going to be. Well camera designers are smart people and they came up with an ingenious way reduce the appearance of long exposure noise. They program your camera to take the actual picture, and then to take another picture of just black (it takes a picture with the shutter closed) for the exact same amount of time as the first image. Then it uses special algorithms to combine the two images to try and reduce the image in the first one.

Sounds complicated huh? Well don't worry too much about the details just keep one thing in mind. If you take a picture that takes a long time, like a picture of fireworks, and you notice that your picture takes a long time to be ready for you to look at, this is why. Your camera really just had to take two pictures, so the one image takes twice as long to be ready for you to look at. Don't get frustrated though, its worth it.

So back to the subject at hand, why did I have to send my camera in for repair? Well let me show you. Here you see a picture that I too a while back in Iraq. We see here the tail end of a helicopter, but also we see two large black spots.

Where did those come from? It has to do with the long exposure noise reduction feature on my camera. This picture required a 30 second exposure to capture. When the thirty seconds were over my camera closed the shutter and immediately took another 30 second blank exposure. It did this to measure the noise and hopefully remove exactly that much noise from this image.

As you can see however some thing didn't work. Remember I said that a camera sensor is composed of millions of little tiny little individual sensors. Well from the looks of this picture, some of them in my camera aren't working right. When the camera takes the blank image those bad area's of my sensor tell the camera that they still see some thing. As the blank exposure drags on longer and longer their influence of the final image gets stronger and these black spots get larger and darker.

This has been a problem with my camera for a long time, and up till this point I would either just remove these spots in Photoshop, or turn long exposure noise reduction off. Neither of these solutions however is the best.

So now, yes I am sad that I don't have my camera here any more. I am hoping though that my sensor is still fixable, and when I get it back it will work like it should. If my sensor is too bad though, and the camera cannot be salvaged.. well I don't know what then, I guess I'm in trouble.