Deconstructed photography, part two: compact camera masterclass

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Imprint. Iphone 4

In part one, we deconstructed the essence of photography, and identified the critical qualities required for a good general-purpose camera. What about the candidates?

On this basis, we have a few potential candidates, in alphabetical order with specs and particular standout qualities:
- Canon G15 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-140/1.8-2.8 – optical finder, zoom range, external controls
- Canon S110 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 24-120/2.0-5.9 (!) – compactness
- Fuji FinePix X10 – 12MP, 2/3″, 28-112/2.0-2.8 – mechanical zoom, optical finder
- Fuji FinePix XF1 – 12MP, 2/3″, 25-100/1.8-4.9 – mechanical zoom, compactness, JPEG quality
- Leica D-Lux 6 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro, extended warranty and Lightroom (over the LX7)
- Nikon P7700 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-200/2.0-4.0 – telephoto reach, external controls
- Olympus XZ2 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-112/1.8-2.5 – a safe middle of the road choice
- Panasonic LX7 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro
- Sony RX100 – 20MP (!), 1″, 28-100/1.8-4.9 – low light use/ resolution/ dynamic range/ overall image quality, speed, video
- The Ricoh GR-Digital IV is a possible too, if you don’t mind a fixed 28mm lens – 10MP, 1/1.7″, 28/1.9 – steath, compactness, street/ hyperfocal photography, configurability

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Church reflection, Melaka. RX100

Of these, I think the G15, X10, XZ2 and P7700 are probably on the large side of what you might want to carry, that said, they are loaded with external controls, and the most tactile of the group. The smaller cameras are more button-and-menu-driven, though they all have control dials whose functions can be assigned to your preferences. The X10 and XF1 are the only two cameras here with physical zoom rings; a neat touch that improves responsiveness (especially since the rings are linked to power-on). Almost all of them are based around the same sensor, and offer fast lenses at the wide end; the LX7 and DL6 are really fast (f1.4); others are consistently fast throughout. The more compact cameras (S110, XF1, RX100) trade off lens speed at the long end.

If you’re expecting me to pick a winner, you’re going to be disappointed. All are similar enough and offer sufficient control, image quality and responsiveness that any one will do for the majority of situations. Yet, they are also different enough in control philosophy and particular feature speciality that if you particularly need any one of these features, your choice may be skewed. If not, pick the one that feels best to you, the one your brand loyalty dictates, the one whose design you prefer – whatever. It doesn’t matter. You just need to like the camera enough to use it, and it should be intuitive enough that you will actually do so. Lower end cameras will work just fine, too – I’ve had great results with the ultracompact Canon SD780 IS and superzoom Panasonic TZ3.

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May arches. RX100

Let’s get something straight upfront though: there are things you can do, and things you can’t. It’s important to know what falls into each category so you a) don’t waste your time attempting to shoot in a particular way then being disappointed by the results, and b) can play to the strengths of your equipment.

- Stealth
- Compressed perspectives
- Getting everything in focus/ hyperfocal photography
- Low key photography (in low light)
- Moderate to high contrast images
- Long exposures, with a relatively lightweight tripod, or IS system: the leaf shutters used in compacts have almost zero vibration, and hand shake can be eliminated almost entirely when paired with the self timer.
- Odd points of view, when used with a swivel screen

Don’t waste your time:
- Getting any sort of shallow depth of field. Only close up, with a distant background, maximum aperture and whatever lets you focus the closest. Otherwise, forget it.
- Tracking moving objects
- Very low light
- Manual focus – why bother?
- Working with thick gloves in cold environments

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Two old ladies framed, Melaka. RX100

For the most part, there are few limitations. Most of the troubling ones can be worked around; the depth of field control one I consider to be more a compositional thing the photographer needs to learn around rather than a limitation of the camera. More problematic is the inability to track moving objects; AF-C is my preferred setting for street photography and reportage scenarios because it counters the effect of subject motion. That said, if you’re using a compact, you could either prefocus at the desired spot and release as your subject passes it, you can pan, or you can rely on the extended depth of field for a given field of view to cover you. Any one of these three approaches will work just fine. In very low light situations, a mini-pod can save you; alternatively, there’s self-timer and IS. But by far the best method is simply to shoot a low key image, or embrace the grain.

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Tranquility. RX100

There are only a few key settings for general photography, in my mind; all of the cameras on the list above will be able to cope.

Program mode. 99.9% of the time, you will be at a focal length/ aperture/ distance combination that means everything in your scene will be in focus anyway; aperture control is meaningless. I’d rather have the camera able to shift exposure automatically to prevent overexposure/ underexposure rather than miss a shot.

Auto ISO. If you set the right limits for maximum ISO (probably around 800-1600 for the smaller-sensored cameras, and 3200 for the RX100) and minimum shutter speed (not always an option), combined with P mode, you’ll avoid missing shots because of insufficient shutter speed or exposure – but at the same time, not have to use an ISO higher than strictly necessary to maintain image quality. Yes, it appears that we’re basically transferring control of exposure over to the camera – but unless you really need to freeze motion or add it (panning, soft water etc.) then I cannot actually think of a situation in which you need to set these parameters manually.

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A night out. RX100

Spot or center-weighted meter. The main reason I’m not an advocate for matrix metering on compacts is that it both tends to be a bit unpredictable, as well simultaneously critical due to the limited dynamic range of small sensors. Nothing screams unnatural in an image more than a blown highlight with a harsh edge transition; taking control of your meter by understanding how it responds to certain situations will help immensely to avoid this. If you use the spot meter, then add between 1/2 and 1 stop to bring the highlights up to the point just before they clip; if you’re using centerweight, then make sure you have a good mix of tonal ranges within the central spot. In either case, the priority is to ensure that the subject is exposed correctly; it’s also almost always the place where you want to focus, so having a spot meter linked to the focus point and exposure lock with a half press of the shutter is ideal – fortunately, this is also almost always the way compact cameras are set up to behave by default.

Exposure compensation easily reached. Regardless of whether you’re using spot or center-weighted meter, you’re inevitably going to need to use exposure compensation at some point – all meters are thrown out by very bright or very dark objects. Better that you either have a dedicated command dial for this, or better yet, a physical dial with the increments permanently marked.

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Tokyo nights. RX100

Single point AF. As much as I’d love to turn over focus selection to the camera, I find that far too often it doesn’t focus on what I want it to, or it picks faces when I don’t want it to, or it finds faces in random geometric arrangements. Whilst this technology has come a long way, it’s still not perfect and can’t determine distance accurately – so the subject picked is almost always the most contrasty one, not the nearest. Just use the center AF point for focusing and metering, then recompose once both are locked.

Prefocus. A common myth is that compacts have huge shutter lag: they don’t. If anything, they have less shutter lag than most DSLRs because there’s no mirror to get out of the way before the exposure. The confusion comes when people include focus acquisition time in the mix; this is not right because you can seldom compare situations in a consistent manner. Prefocus shutter release lag for say the Nikon D4 – arguably one of the fastest cameras out there – is 42ms. By comparison, the RX100′s prefocus lag is just 13ms – so short that it takes your finger longer to physically move to depress the button by that additional fraction. Prefocusing thus obviously reduces overall response time, meaning fewer missed shots. You have to shoot a bit differently with a compact and a moving subject: with a DSLR, I’ll use AF-C and track my subject until it hits the point I want relative to the rest of the composition, then release. With a compact, I’ll frame and prefocus first, wait statically with the final framing intact, then shoot when the subject hits the point I want.

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Duplicity. RX100

Stabilizer on. Small cameras held at arms’ length (and not braced against one’s face) are not the most stable of shooting platforms; without a stabilizer, you’ll probably need 1/2x focal length – or higher with higher resolution cameras – to maintain a pixel-sharp image. You can probably claw back around 3 stops with the best of the stabilization systems, of which Panasonic is currently king. Make sure it’s set to the mode which is always active so you can frame more precisely, too – some cameras only activate the stabilizer when shooting to save power.

RAW (with exceptions). Other than the Fujis – whose JPEG files, especially with DR400 set – are amazing – there are gains to be made by shooting RAW and postprocessing for all of the above cameras. The gap is smaller for the Sony RX100, but still noticeable. Note that some cameras like the LX7 add in-camera processing to remove CA and distortion; whilst you might get more detail and dynamic range in RAW, you’re going to be trading off automated lens corrections.

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Crossing. RX100

Burst mode. I don’t spray away at 10fps on my RX100 all the time, but I do have it set to CL and 4fps in case I need to shoot a sequence of something interesting; it’s the same way I have my DSLRs and OM-D set up. In lower light, keeping your finger down can partially alleviate any camera shake caused by the depressing motion.

Flash off. Unless you’re triggering remote speedlights, are shooting social images in a dark place, or perhaps trying something with rear-sync, then avoid the small built-in unit. It’s just going to look horrible, not to mention lack power to fill in daylight beyond a meter or so.

Highlight warning in playback, with zoom-to-focus-point. I find this particular combination of review settings useful because it lets me quickly assess if I nailed the shot or not: is it critically sharp (magnification amount for this will differ from camera to camera)? Are there any overexposed areas? Critical underexposure? The latter is especially important when you have both only the LCD to use in daylight to evaluate images, as well as limited dynamic range.

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In front but not driving. RX100

Have a spare battery handy. Continuous live view drains batteries very quickly. Even the best of cameras will only manage perhaps 3 hours of continuous running time with the LCD on, which is probably about 200-250 images or thereabouts. If you are careful and turn the camera off between exposures and minimize your chimping, you might eke this out to about 5-600 shots; for me, this is bare minimum for a full day of shooting. A spare battery is therefore a must have, and allows you to keep going even when the main one is being charged.

I want to talk a bit about RAW, processing and sufficiency. Although I’ve been repeatedly revisiting the whole idea of postprocessing recently – first with film, then with medium format, and as a question in and of itself – I know I haven’t taken a position either way yet, but I don’t think not processing is an option for most compacts, with the exception of the Fuji X10 and XF1. This is because none of them have the native tonal qualities that are desirable in a photograph – namely smooth highlight and shadow transitions with reasonably punchy midtones – straight out of the camera. The files certainly have the potential to be that way, but they do require work post-capture; perhaps a bit more than a good file from a larger sensor camera. However, I wouldn’t be too worried about image quality: a good 12MP file that’s critically sharp at the pixel level will print just fine to A3 and perhaps one size beyond; needless to say it’s more than enough for web viewing. It’s often important to take a quick reality check in the pursuit of megapixels: when was the last time you printed larger than A3?

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Imagined patterns.

In the end though, it all comes back down to the pictures, and the ideas encapsulated and communicated therein. The camera is merely a box, a tool; why should it be over-promoted to seemingly also be the endgame? My personal journey for creative evolution has taken me in a different direction: an increased focus on the purity of the idea, and continued liberation from equipment requirements. I want something that can capture what I see in a variety of perspectives; something that is unobtrusive, stealthy and doesn’t attract attention; something that’s flexible enough for most situations I might randomly encounter, but doesn’t require a great commitment in bulk or weight, preferably I shouldn’t even know it’s there. I don’t mind if it imposes some limitations on the way I shoot or the way I meter; these might turn out to be good things which provide small creative nudges in the right direction. As good as Micro Four Thirds is, by the time you load up on a lens or two, you still know you’re carrying a camera – and I would still take the OM-D for serious personal work – but for experimentation, and the kind of ligthbulb moments of experimentation that happen when you’re not planning them, it seems that for now a serious compact or two is the way to go. And the best thing of all is that if (and probably when) I get bored of it, it’s not going to be too painful to swap it for a new one and start the process all over again. MT

The various cameras mentioned in this article are available here at their respective links from Amazon: Canon G15, Canon S110, Fuji FinePix X10, Fuji FinePix XF1, Leica D-Lux 6, Nikon P7700, Olympus XZ2, Panasonic LX7, Sony RX100, Ricoh GR-Digital IV.


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Deconstructed photography, part one: identifying the essentials

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None of the images in this article have any clues as to the camera used, but I feel that they’re strong images nevertheless; if you’re curious you can click through to the image’s flickr hosting page and scroll down to the bottom right; EXIF data is there. Try to ask yourself first though: are there any giveaways that mean it could only have been shot with one particular format or piece of equipment?

This is the first article in a two-part series about photography today, with the ultimate objective – as always – of making a great image, but this time taking full advantage of all the technology at our disposal. After spending some time with medium format in a quest to get another one of those creative spurts brought on by a major change in equipment, I’ve pretty much made a complete U turn and am contemplating a Nikon P7700 instead. Allow me to explain; excuse the somewhat roundabout logic, but I think it will make sense once we reach the end.

We need to backtrack a bit to take into account some fundamental viewer psychology. In the increasingly huge sea of images that are being produced today, what stands out are those that look different from the rest. And for the most part, that difference is obtained by turning something up to 11, rather than nailing the fundamentals of what makes an outstanding image. Commonly seen ‘techniques’ include: oversaturation, HDR, fake cross-processing-hipstagram-effects, over-contrasty black and white conversions, ultrawide perspectives, supertele perspectives, walls of nothing but bokeh…I think you can see where this list is going. In short: if one aspect of the image has to shout to cover the deficiencies of the other portions, then this cannot be a good image in the first place because it fundamentally has those has deficiencies to begin with.

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Yet the very reason why these types of images stand out will erode as there are more of them in circulation: they will no longer look different from the rest of the pack. This brings us back to a focus on the fundamental things that make an image work; I’ve said this so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody decides to engrave it on my tombstone (or perhaps I should get a tattoo of it) – light, subject, composition; then, the idea. The idea can come first and override the other three if it’s strong enough, or it can be the underlying reason for their execution. Images with all four properties will endure time and transcend the medium: a strong image in this way will still be arresting whether it was shot with an iPhone or a medium format back.

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In that case, why isn’t it the focus of every aspiring photographer to nail the fundamental structure of an image before worrying about the number of pixels or number of stops of dynamic range it has, or the maximum speed of their lens? Simply because it’s much more difficult to do so. On the other hand, photographic technology has some so far in recent times that there are few reasons why we should continue to bother with the technicalities of it all, so long as you know how to control the fundamental parameters that affect the audience’s perception of the image: in a way, it’s taking the Apple design approach to photography. We identify the fundamentals, throw away what isn’t important, and spend a lot more time focusing on what does matter. But at the same time, we avoid things that can be gimmicky or difficult to execute with the aim of providing the average photographer with a nice set of fundamental skills that will serve in the majority of situations.

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Although I suspect most photographers already shoot this way – aim, focus, compose to varying degrees of precision and consideration, perhaps compensate exposure, then shoot – a lot of them hide behind the pretence of a lot of complex-looking settings and adjustments that are seldom used outside fully automatic mode, and more often than not just confuse and get in the way when an accidental button press delivers behaviour other than expected.

What I’m saying is that perhaps we should consider the possibility that for the vast majority of situations, it’s not a bad idea to acknowledge and embrace that. Why do I need to manually set my exposure if the camera’s meter can get it right? Why does it matter what white balance is or the exact Kelvin temperature of a scene if the camera’s automatic white balance can cope? Why do we need to pick the focus point if most of the time, the camera is right, and the rest of the time, extended depth of field covers the errors? Why spend time processing RAW files individually if the JPEGs are excellent, or even better?* Let technology do the work, and forget about all of those settings that don’t matter – don’t even bother including them. Why should there be an option for dynamic range 100%, 200% and 400% when clearly we want 400% for 99% of situations? We shouldn’t even need custom functions if the camera behaves in a sensible and consistent manner.

*See my recent Fuji FinePix XF1 review.

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Since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be approached by a camera maker and offered both a blank sheet of paper and some deep funds, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. And in the marketing-driven world of photographic products, we actually have to go to either extreme of the product spectrum to find what we’re looking for: a camera which has solid, reliable automatic functions, no frills, and the basics like exposure compensation and spot metering. It would be nice to have a range of perspectives easily to hand too, though for novices perhaps it’s safer to go with a fixed lens and forgo the temptation to compose with the zoom. Add a good sensor, speed and responsiveness into the mix, and we’re done. I used to be hung up about having an optical viewfinder for stability and visual nuance, but that’s changed with improvements in stabilisation systems, and even more so with increased LCD resolutions more accurately displaying focus at the sensor plane and the added flexibility to shoot from other vantages where the camera doesn’t have to be at your eye. Depth of field control is a nice to have, but not critical; it’s just another way to isolate your subject – but there are many ways of doing that, and it’s not the most pictorially powerful anyway. Too many people rely on extreme bokeh to make an image that looks different; we don’t need super-fast lenses for common applications anymore now that even small sensors are capable of delivering good results at ISO 1600**. Finally, being a pack mule for your equipment isn’t fun: the less we can get away with carrying, the better.

**In the early days of photography, photographers struggled to get more depth of field rather than less – perhaps it was a case of art imitating life (perception), art (photography) imitating art (painting). Yes, we have that additional tool, but don’t overuse it: there is such a thing as too little depth of field. Note that this is different from good/ bad quality of bokeh; another axis of variables, if you will.

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What does this mean in real terms? If you add everything up, for the majority of photographers, we’re looking at a prosumer compact, possibly with a larger sensor, possibly not. These cameras are designed to be automated; the manual controls are just put in mostly to appease the marketers and obsessive photographers who like to twiddle their aperture dials, oblivious of the fact that with a 20mm real focal length, there will be no visible difference in depth of field at f5.6 or f8 with a subject that’s 30m away, or that no matter what focusing mode you use, it’ll still be too slow to track action. I am not saying that all photographers should abandon control; if anything, the opposite. I certainly won’t be replacing my full-frame DSLR and lenses with a compact for client-critical work anytime soon, if ever. What I’m saying is that for casual photography, we should focus on mastering control of the elements that matter, which conveniently are also those that can easily be taken care of even with the most basic of cameras. For most uses, those are limited to a few critical things: light (exposure compensation), composition (perspective, positioning, focus) and subject (timing). The rest are secondary or specialised.

Compacts have some big advantages that often get overlooked:
- They’re small and discrete, easily portable and don’t attract attention;
- They cover focusing errors through extended depth of field;
- They might have limited dynamic range compared to larger sensor cameras, but that can actually be helpful from a pictorial/ artistic point of view by emphasizing contrast and differences in light;
- You can carry a lot of perspectives in a small size, without too many optical compromises – 28-200 isn’t unheard of, and I believe there’s a Canon that even covers 24-1200m (!!);
- They focus close, once again allowing perspectives that might not otherwise be possible;
- Extended depth of field + unusual perspectives = compositions not easily achievable with a larger sensored camera, e.g. highly compressed images with everything in focus
- They’re very easily positionable; lenses can be poked through holes in fences or walls, held high or low etc. – especially the swivel screen models
- Sensor and stabilizer technology has come a long way. With the D800E, I might need ISO 6400 to shoot at f8, 35mm and get enough shutter speed to handhold without shake; even with VR. Let’s assume the stabilizer advantage evens out. I could shoot at 17mm and f4 on the OM-D and have the same perspective and DOF, but I’d be using ISO 1600 for the same shutter speed; on say the Panasonic LX7, I could be at a larger aperture than f2 (unfortunately there isn’t one at this focal length) and two stops better again, at ISO 400. We’re looking at some form of equivalence here: sure, the D800E image will have more detail, but that won’t really come through in typical print or display sizes for the majority of photographers***. Perceptually, they’d look pretty similar at a 12×18″/ A3 print; I’d much rather carry the LX7, thanks.
- AF speed has come a long way – for static subjects, we’ve pretty much got as much speed as we need. For moving ones, until we get phase detection sites onto our compact sensors, they’re all equally useless and you’re going to have to find a DSLR.
- Buffer and usability isn’t really an issue anymore; it hasn’t been for compacts since about 2009. My Sony RX100 will shoot 20MP, 14-bit RAW + JPEG fine images at 10fps for 10 frames.
- Price: even the best of the compacts will cost significantly less than a midrange DSLR or mirrorless camera and a decent zoom. Again taking the example of the Sony RX100 – we’re looking at about US$700 +/-, which compares very favorably to even a Nikon D3200 and AFS 16-85/3.5-5.6 VR at approximately US$1,200 – and that doesn’t even come close to the Sony’s f1.8 wide end. And if you get bored of it, it’s not going to cost too much to trade it in for the latest and greatest. (New cameras can be a source of inspiration in themselves, but that’s another topic for another article.)

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You’ll note that I’ve excluded Micro Four Thirds and the other CSCs from this list, mainly because there are compact and good all-in-one lens solutions that make the cameras pocketable. If you don’t mind a bit more bulk and a prime lens, then these are great options too – for not much more size, you get a lot more image quality. But there’s no way you’re going to put even an E-PM2 and the smallest 14/2.5 prime lens into your pocket without risking arrest on public decency laws.

***We’re talking sufficiency here, not ultimate image quality.

Let’s boil this down a bit further: what do we really need in a compact?
- Responsiveness: everything from AF speed to menu operation and navigability, shot-to-shot speed, image review etc. Speed is the priority;
- Fast AF. I can’t emphasize this one enough;
- A fast lens: it’s much easier to make fast, decent zooms that cover a smaller image circle than a larger one; f2 or better on the wide end, and ideally something fairly close on the long end (though that will tend to be compromised as the lens’ reach increases);
- A decent range of perspectives: wide/moderate wide to moderate telephoto; enough to get a clear difference in perspective. Personally, 28-85 is fine for me, though I don’t have any complaints about a bit wider or a bit longer; compact sensors tend to be 4:3 rather than 3:2, and since the focal length posted follows the diagonal of the sensor, you’re going to need a bit more width to get the same horizontal field of view;
- A good LCD. Forget the optical finder, it’s going to be a tiny tunnel. I’d rather have a nice, bright, sharp 3″+ LCD. Bonus points for something with an antireflective coating that’s also visible in daylight, and a tilt/ swivel screen;
- RAW support, or outstanding JPEGs;
- A good image stabilisation system;
- Easily accessed exposure compensation, preferably on a separate dial;
- A sensible auto-ISO mode, ideally allowing setting of minimum shutter speed, if not linked to the focal length used;
- A solid meter, or spot metering, or preferably both;
- Fast image review, with a quick way to check critical focus;
- Finally, tactility matters. Something that feels nice to use will simply be used more often; it’s in the quality of the materials, the feel of the controls/ switches/ buttons/ knobs/ dials; the grippiness of the rubber; the solidity of the build.

In part two, we’ll consider the current candidates and field a bit of a compact camera masterclass.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Deconstructing light, part four: continuous sources

The final part in this introduction to lighting mini-series is a look at when continuous light sources can be useful, and how to best deploy them.

I use continuous lighting primarily for food photography – specifically, large, high-CRI LED panels – because the low temperature of the source doesn’t interfere with the subject. (Try blasting sashimi with flash repeatedly, and you’ll soon see just how fast delicate fish can cook.) However, it’s also useful in other situations – obviously, to give clients an idea of what the end result will look like; for videography, when flashes obviously aren’t feasible, and less obviously, when you’re working in a dark environment and actually need a reasonably accurate representation of what the light will look like in order to compose and focus.

The rules for using continuous lights are pretty much the same, but with a few limitations:
1. Color temperature usually isn’t variable, and for large sources, you might not be able to find gels big enough – so you will probably have to go with almost 100% artificial light in your exposure. Note that you can also find continuous tungsten lights, but these run very hot and have a very low color temperature, which can lead to problems with blues.
2. LED panels aren’t that bright, so you will need to work with a tripod, and again, watch ambient light – it will creep in because the exposure times will necessarily be longer than for flash photography.
3. Subject motion – another consequence of longer exposures, especially with human subjects.
4. Heat. If you’re using tungsten light, be careful with things accidentally coming in contact with the bulbs or heads and catching fire or burning. That includes your skin.
5. Power. You’ll need to be plugged into mains or large batteries for lights of any consequential power. Ensure you take this into account when planning for a shoot – extension cables and power strips are your friend!

Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

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The end of sorbet. Leica D-Lux 5

Single small LED panel to the top; note the hot spot on the spoon. The problem with using panels is that they’re difficult diffuse without a significant loss in power; the only way to make it work is either live with the hot spots (not a major problem for food) or get bigger panels (very expensive). I wanted my panels to be versatile, so I’m now using 45x45cm models.

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Test shot from the M-Monochrom review. Leica M-Monochrom, 50/2 APO

One large LED panel off to the right; since it was a test shot, I didn’t bother to clear the wire from the foreground…with human subjects, LED panels enable faster, more comfortable working as you don’t have to make as many trial and error adjustments with the flash, and it’s simply not as hot.

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Bread. Leica D-Lux 5

Part of a series from a food photography class I ran for Leica earlier in the year. I had two small LED panels for this, spread out around the top of the image and on even power; they provided definition and shadow. Image was shot top-down, obviously.

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Foie gras. Leica D-Lux 5

Two LED panels; one top left, one top right. Both slightly above the subject to highlight that moisty, oily sheen on the seared foie gras. LED panels are quite directional but yet with short throw; this means they’ve got to be fairly close to your subject, and you’ll need more than one to fill in the shadows.

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Leica S2, using the D-Lux 5

This is an example of what you can do when you have 40 LED panels at your disposal – I demonstrated product photography using the mini-panels to create a ring of light around the subject, with some actually providing light on the subject, and some just there to provide background texture.

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Sushi platter. Leica D-Lux 5

One medium panel from the top took care of lighting here – getting the height and angle right is the critical part, so that the subject is evenly lit but yet has definition to preserve the shape and texture of the fish. Panels were about 30cm above the subject in this case.

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Rice cones. Olympus OM-D

I used two panels here – one on full power from the right side, slightly elevated relative to the plane of the plate, and slightly behind; the other was to the left and running 1/8th power to provide fill and keep the food looking fresh and ‘bright’ rather than shadowy and ‘heavy’. Lighting is all about psychology and creating the desired mood in the viewer…

A primer on lighting equipment is here. Part one on single sources can be found here; part two on multiple sources, here; part three on balancing ambient, here.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Deconstructing light, part three: balancing ambient

One of the neat things you can do when you’re controlling the light is highlighting your subject, but preserving the ambient atmosphere. Today’s post focuses on how to do that.

Ambient light is your friend: it helps you to fill in the background with pre-lit object, providing compositional context; but more importantly, you can use it to preserve the atmosphere of the scene, which can be difficult to recreate if you’re using 100% flash or strobe only. All of the previous control points for single and multiple lights apply, of course. The two major challenges with balancing ambient are exposure and color. I’ll deal with exposure first.

There’s no fixed rule for this, but the more ambient you want to preserve, the closer your exposure must be to ambient exposure; the best way to do this is by shooting in manual mode and balancing out your shutter speed and aperture until you’re around one stop underexposed; I wouldn’t do anything more than three stops of difference (unless you have very bright ambient point sources) because very little, if any, ambient sources will remain. You’ve got three parameters to play with here – shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Shutter speed should fall somewhere between your max sync speed and around 1/30s if you’re dealing with people; higher if there are moving objects, lower if static. Aperture should allow you to hold in focus whatever you need to. ISO is the remaining balancing factor once you have set the other two – try and keep this low to maintain image quality, however. I generally don’t go higher than 800. Note that flash power should be the last thing that’s altered (and done by the camera’s meter to balance out the required exposure) – this is because you are firstly setting your exposure based on ambient, then filling the primary subject with the precise amount of flash required for a proper exposure.

Color is actually simpler: if it’s daylight, or close to it, there’s no need to gel your flashes, because they operate at fairly close to daylight Kelvin temperatures. If it’s tungsten or fluorescent, you’ll need to use the correct gels over the front of the flash so they provide the same temperature color source as the ambient lighting; you’ll also then have to set the white balance in-camera to match ambient. Note that you don’t always have to match the flashes to ambient; sometimes having a bit of temperature difference isn’t a bad thing, as it can help to highlight the subject. Just don’t make the difference too glaringly obvious.

Let’s move on to the examples.

Omega Speedmaster 9300. Nikon D800E

One of the more common situations I face where I have to balance flash and ambient are lume shots of watches – you need a very long exposure to capture the glow luminous material; often 30s at f16 ISO 100, or longer. However, a luminous dial pattern on its own isn’t very interesting, so I usually supplement this with some ambient. You could do this two ways – composite a regular (but underexposed by several stops) shot in, or just add a manual flash kicker to define the case. Here, I used 1/16th power from top left through the diffuser box.

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Sandwich. Nikon D700

The background glow is the restaurant decor; I had flashes reflecting off umbrellas left and right to illuminate the sandwich. Exposure was balanced out to expose two stops under ambient for the restaurant, with a longer exposure time and base ISO (sandwiches don’t do much moving).

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Autumn texture. Nikon D90

One flash from the left, not diffused to provide a bit of harsh light to add texture and definition to the subject; exposure 1/2 stop under ambient. I wanted to fill the shadows and create some cross-lighting effects rather than make things soft and diffuse; a very flat angle for the flash position was used to accomplish this.

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MRI room. Some of you might recognize this from a previous on assignment post. Nikon D800E

The objective of this shoot was to show the clean, high-tech environment of the hospital’s new MRI machine. The MRI and room itself had ambient lighting on both the machine and ceiling; if we shot with this alone, firstly our models wouldn’t have been able to keep still for long enough, and secondly, the ambient light was far too cool with a large difference in color temperature to the machine. Hence, flashes were used to illuminate the room and models – one in a reflective umbrella to the top right corner of the room; I needed throw and definition for the whites. The second one was placed on top of the rear casing of the MRI to fill the back of the room.

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Mammogram. Nikon D800E

Here, the client wanted to convey a warm, friendly feeling to the room; nothing says this better than warm lighting. The color temperature of the flashes were shifted with gels; the primary source source was a flash reflected off an umbrella behind and above the machine; a secondary flash was bounced off the wall behind me (and to the right of the patient) to provide fill at 1.5 stops under the main flash.

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Sony RX100 product shot. Nikon D700

The final example is one of those deceptively complex shots: one flash from top right was fired through the diffuser to light the camera body and background, but the exposure was altered until it balanced out that of the screen. If I’d just used the native sync speed of 1/250s and stopped down, the screen would black out because it isn’t that bright.

Come back again tomorrow for the final part in this series! MT

A primer on lighting equipment is here. Part one on single sources can be found here; part two on multiple sources, here.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Deconstructing light, part two: multiple sources

Part two deals with multiple sources: how and where do you use them? What is the one key rule to remember?

Although you can do a lot with a single flash, there’s even more that can be done with two or more. For starters, you can fill in shadows; or if you want to get more adventurous, you can mix both hard and soft light (direct and diffused) for better definition, or more accurate replication of found light sources. (There’s one particular shot I’m rather fond of that I call ‘the Hollywood’, which I’ll go into later).

There’s one critical thing to remember when using multiple sources, though: there must always be a primary source. If you don’t have one, then you won’t have any subject definition – opposing sources will fill in the shadows, and shadows are what defines the shape of an object.

The same parameters you can control with a single source apply to multiple sources, of course. The more sources you have, the more complicated things get. It’s useful to decompose your thinking thusly:
1. Primary source, on main subject
2. Secondary source, on main subject – definition (rim light, not diffused) or fill (diffused, or reflected)?
3. Other sources, for background objects or secondary subject – take steps 1 and 2 and repeat.

I’m sure you can now see why Joe McNally needs several trunks full of speedlights. I’m not quite there yet, but I find that most of the time a two-light setup is sufficient; there are times where I’ll use three for watches, but I’ve yet to require four sources (except in situations where I need more power from one location, and have to add a second flash to turn the wick up a notch).

Let’s look at some examples.

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Ferrari 250 GTO. Sadly, not a real one. Nikon D200

This one has two distinct sources, both flashes behind diffuser panels – one at left, and one at right. They’re actually slightly behind the subject to create a nice specular highlight that defines the curvature in the panels; if I’d put the sources at right angles, you’d have very flat illumination and not much of a feel for the 3-D shape of the car.

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Nikon 14-24. Nikon D3

Some objects betray their lighting secrets very clearly – reflective hemispheres are perhaps the worst culprits. For something like this, the best thing to do is keep the light source simple; in this case, two softboxes from the left and right. Power was equal; if not, you wouldn’t get the nice multi-colored reflections off the coatings on the lens. Note that the softboxes were actually pretty close to the subject; the hemispherical shape makes them appear further away.

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Lange Datograph. Nikon D700

Through a trick of optical projection, the watch actually appears floating in mid-air and truncated, even though it’s resting securely on the surface behind. Note that this was shot with the lens and watch resting on a flat surface, but lit as though vertical. The primary source was through a diffuser, aimed at the watch and shielded from lighting the lens in front; a secondary source, at reduced power, lit the nameplate of the lens; finally, a third source – again at reduced power – lit the background. A simple-looking shot, but a bugger to light.

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Panerai Arktos. Nikon D200

Sometimes you want hard definition; in such cases, a concentrated, direct source is the best way to go, without diffusion. Here, I used one flash from the top, and one from the bottom to provide fill. Both were positioned at a low angle to avoid flat-looking interference at the point of the subject closest to the camera, with a small baffle on one side of the flash preventing light spillage.

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Steak. Nikon D700

This example is an instance of when two light sources look like one. A flash with reflective umbrella was used from the top right; you actually need to see a bit of harsh reflection off the oil on the steak to know it’s a juicy steak, making a reflective umbrella ideal. However, you still need to soften out the edges a bit, which is where the very low power secondary source comes in; if it’s too diffuse, you lose the defining effect of the first source, so there’s another flash reflecting off an umbrella from the left, too.

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The Hollywood. Nikon D3

There are actually four flashes in play here: two at the back to provide the spotlight effect and backlit definition on the subject’s hair; one from the right in a softbox as the primary source, and a fourth on the D3 to serve as remote commander.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillon I. Nikon D700

Lighting at the macro scale is extremely tricky – partially because you don’t have a lot of working distance, and partially because your source has to be the right size: too large, and the light is too soft and lacks definition; too small, and you’re going to get harsh reflections and rough-looking surfaces. Here, I used one flash fairly close to the topmost diffuser, with a secondary one through the back diffuser to provide fill of the shadows – thanks to the handy aperture in the watch dial.

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Seiko Fifty-five Fathoms. Nikon D700

We finish this section with a classic two-light: primary source upper back center, and secondary fill from the left to give the transparent domed objects – water and watch crystal – some definition. Not much power difference between the two flashes; the bigger difference was the location of the flashes. The back one was further away and with a wider spread than the left one; this created a larger source of almost equal brightness.

Come back tomorrow for part three! MT

A primer on lighting equipment is here. Part one on single sources can be found here.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Deconstructing light, part one: one light

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Over the next few days, we’ll look at a few examples of lighting, and specifically, deconstructing it: what lights were positioned where, and what was the logic of doing so?

Today, I’m going to start with some relatively simple setups: they only use one light, with or without additional modifiers. Quite often, you don’t actually need much more than that. Single light setups tend to have very well defined shadows and highlights; chiaroscuro is the term that’s used to refer to an image that is predominantly described by it shadows and negative spaces. Classical painters were masters of this technique; they lit things in ways that are very difficult to replicate in real life – partially because of the size of their sources, and partially because they weren’t strictly limited by the laws of physics.

For simplicity, let us assume that you’re shooting at your camera’s highest sync speed, and that ambient light is not really a factor into the equation. Note that everything said here applies to both speedlights and studio strobes. I’m not going to discuss built in or on-camera flash, because it simply will not give you the results you need or offer the flexibility required. There are few variables in a one-light setup:

1. Output power
How bright do you want it? Usually, your lights will alter power based solely on your desired depth of field – which translates into aperture, which in turn translates into the amount of power required to provide a correct exposure. Note that the shutter speed only affects ambient light, not the power output of the flash. Flash duration is often 1/1000s or even much shorter. Most cameras will sync to 1/250s or thereabouts; this is the maximum duration of a full power flash. Those that sync at higher speeds require the flash to fire several times to cover the focal plane, as this is the highest speed at which the entire sensor area is exposed at the same time. (Anything faster, and the opening between shutter curtains is effectively a narrow moving slit.)

2. Distance
More distance requires a higher guide number to provide the same given illumination. Distance also affects the perceived size of your source – in general, providing the light isn’t a single point, the farther away you are, the brighter your source has to be for a given illumination level. For more diffuse light, you want your primary source to be further away.

3. Beam coverage/ angle
Most flashes and heads can have their beam angle changed – you want to match the beam angle to the focal length to produce the optimal balance frame coverage and power consumption; lighting more than you need to is a waste of power, but less than your angle of view will produce hot spots. Of course, you could always do this deliberately for a spotlight effect. Note that a wide beam close to the subject and diffuser will not look the same as a spot (telephoto setting on the flash) beam farther away with a big diffuser; the latter will produce far softer light.

4. Diffusion
The best example of diffusion is the difference between a clear, cloudless day and an overcast one: look at the difference in shadows. A cloudless day produces very harsh shadows and wide dynamic range with high brightness in the highlights; it’s a dynamic range nightmare (especially for outdoor wedding shooters, because of all that black and white involved). The opposite is true for cloudy days – note how soft and diffuse the light is. The clouds are effectively adding as a diffuser. For photographic/ flash purposes, you can use a diffuser – not a small clip-on thing that goes on your flash, but something larger like a softbox. The further away your source is from the diffuser, the softer the light is going to be. Control diffusion, and you effectively control the subject’s tonal differentiation.

5. Angle of incidence/ positioning
This seems obvious, but where you put your light and how you aim it can make a huge difference to the look of the image. In fact, it’s possible to leave the orientation of subject and camera fixed in one position, and just move your lights to create several completely different-looking images.

A quicks note on color and white balance: assuming all of your exposure comes from flash, just set your white balance to flash or daylight – most cameras will do this automatically. We do need to start worrying about mixed color temperatures, but only when balancing ambient and artificial light.

Let’s look at some examples.

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Hair. Leica X1

Single speedlight in softbox; shot at 1/2000s sync speed – to freeze motion, I used a camera with a leaf shutter and high flash sync speed. The source was positioned at 45 degrees to the subject and camera to provide definition; it was not that far away from the subject to avoid too much diffusion – this way, you still get some highlight definition which helps give the subject shape.

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Maitres du Temps Chapter 3 prototype dial. Nikon D800

Single speedlight behind diffuser panel to the top of the watch. The watch was inside a diffuser box to control reflections of surrounding objects off its polished surfaces. For images like this, the precise position of the flash relative to the diffuser and subject, as well as the beam angle, are very important – a small change in the position of the flash or beam angle changes the nature of the reflection significantly, as you will see demonstrated by the next image. For this image, the source was reasonably high up, far away, and with a wide beam angle to produce a soft reflection.

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Lange Datograph. Nikon D700

This shot employed an almost identical setup to the previous one, except the flash was at a lower angle, much closer to the watch and with a tighter beam spread (longer zoom setting). Note how the reflection in this shot is very concentrated in one spot close to the top edge of the crystal, and is much ‘harder’ and more defined than in the previous shot.

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Seasoning. Nikon D700

I used a flash in an reflective umbrella to the back left of the subject here; I wanted some diffusion but also some definition – too much diffusion and the pasta looks like a flat, matte amorphous blob. The source was partially behind the subject to provide a bit of backlight, which would define the grains of seasoning against the dark background of the person’s shirt. Note: there is such a thing as too much diffusion!

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047. Nikon D700

Despite appearances, this shot actually employed direct flash with almost no diffusion. The watch itself is fairly matte, and the texture of the carbon-fiber dial is only apparent when struck with strongly directional light. I used a single flash to the right of the subject, almost touching the diffuser panel; this provided a minimal amount of softening of the edge of the flash source (so it wouldn’t appear as a hard point source in the minor reflections) but enough directionality to give the dial definition.

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Prawns. Nikon D700

This example involves one flash again, but bounced off an umbrella fairly far away from the subject. Given that the room, tablecloth and surroundings were predominantly white, any light source used would reflect and provide some fill. This meant that the primary source had to be diffuse, yet directional – making an umbrella ideal.

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Eugenie. Nikon D200

The final example involves a combination of light modifiers – a snoot and a diffuser box. The snoot was used to concentrate the light to the center of the diffuser; the diffuser was used to soften the skin of the subject. The net effect was a soft spot – imagine a source about the size of a large dinner plate, with intensity dropping off towards the edges. Thus, we get the best of both worlds – chiaroscuro definition, and gentle tonal rolloff in the shadows and highlights.

Come back tomorrow for part two. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


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