Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Great JPEG Experiment of Summer 2014

AKA Shooting Without A Safety Net
Here is one of the images that started this whole JPEG experiment in the first place. I used my camera’s pinhole art filter which enhances select tones and adds a vignette to the image. I also notice that the filter increases contrast and appears to even add a touch of sharpness to the image. While I may have been able to create this effect during postwork, or just can choose the filter during RAW processing, I find it more satisfying to do it in camera. Seeing the effect of the camera’s filter in my electronic viewfinder helps me to compose the most pleasing image with the effect clearly shown . No guessing where that vignette will be or how colors will be effected, it’s all there in front of me in real time. If you don’t have an EVF, many cameras offer live view on the LCD and you can see how your chosen camera settings will effect the image.

I’m no stranger to the JPEG format. Like most photographers, my first digital images were captured in the Jpeg format. It is the easiest capture format to work with. And if you correctly adjust your camera settings during capture, a Jpeg image can be hard to differentiate from a regularly processed Raw file. But this post is not about which format is better. There’s a lot of posts online on that subject, including my own past blog post "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF?"
Rather, I would like to share my own JPEG adventure this summer. As loyal readers of my blog already know, I purchased a new camera this year. As a result, my photography has been a bit more experimental this year as I try to get used to how my new camera captures images. Not just physically, with its different layout, but how this new sensor renders color and dynamic range.

While I have often used JPEG for my concert and wrestling photography, I would usually choose to capture my nature imagery in the RAW file format. So, as a starting point when using my new camera my first images were captured in RAW. After downloading these images and attempting to process the RAW files, I got an unpleasant surprise. I already knew that I would need to use a new program for my RAW processing as the newer ORF (Olympus’ RAW file format) files could not be processed in my rather old version of Photoshop Elements. Rather than updating the program or purchasing another, I decided to use Olympus’ own software, Olympus Viewer 3. Three advantages of the program are: 1. it’s free. 2. You can apply Olympus Art Filters to the RAW images 3. Because it’s the manufacturer’s own software, it was developed to provide the kind of quality images that the camera was designed to capture. But like many camera manufacturers’ RAW processing software, it is a bit on the slow side. That was the surprise.

Although past experience with their previous versions of this software were similar, I had hoped that this newer version would be faster. I tried a few other RAW processing programs, but liked the Olympus results best even though the other programs proved to be faster. Perhaps with more tweaking I may have found settings that would have rendered more pleasing results, but I was more interested in getting to know my new camera this year than learning about new software.

Feeling a bit annoyed about the RAW editing situation with my new camera, I decided to try capturing my shots in the RAW + JPEG setting, which saves both RAW and JPEG files for every capture. I noticed that a lot of the images I was capturing with the new camera didn’t need much enhancement during computer postwork so I figured I could just capture both file formats at once and only process the RAW files of the images that needed additional exposure or color corrections. Shooting this way is a favorite way of many photographers. It will eat up space on your memory cards, but memory is cheap so it’s not usually a huge issue. It did become an issue for me on a recent trip to NYC, but that is a post for another time.

So during spring and early summer, I shot RAW+JPEG for almost everything. It worked well for the most part, but because I spent so much time experimenting with different settings during RAW processing, I was ending up with far too many images to sort down later during the second part of my editing process (see my past posts: "Go With The (Work)Flow" and "Raw To Fully Cooked: How I Develop My Raw ImageFiles.") There were so many of them and it started to become tedious. I was starting to feel like the drudgery of it all was crushing my love of photography. I wanted to be outside taking photos, not sitting inside sorting and editing those photos. Surely there had to be an easier way.

While outside on a lovely summer day, I decided that I would play around with my camera’s art filter settings. My Olympus OMD EM5 has settings which applies a variety of artistic effects to your images. If shooting RAW+JPEG, the effect is applied to the JPEG only. The RAW file will have default settings that will render a more natural image (contrast will be set at 0, color saturation at Natural.) Any of the art filter effects can be applied to the RAW image during postprocessing, but the JPEG images will be as captured so you can not apply the art filter effects to those JPEG images nor reverse them if the image was captured with an art filter applied. For this reason, a RAW+JPEG capture makes sense when using those art filters. And while that can be a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just better to make an artistic decision on the spot and stick with it rather than being stuck with way too many versions of the same image to sort through later on when deciding which images you want to share online or print.

So I got an idea, why not just try dropping the "safety net" of RAW, and just capture the image in the JPEG format. This was a big step on my part, this meant committing to my settings. If I wanted a "straight" version of a particular scene, I was going to have to take another photo and risk that the light, focus, or bokeh may not be as pleasing and thus may end up not being useable. That would mean I would be stuck with only the arty effect version and if I later changed mind it would be too late.

But I’m the experimental type, so I accepted that fact. With rare exception, I have been spending the rest of the summer in JPEG capture mode. I shot RAW for a few sessions because I needed to work quickly and wanted to make sure I could more easily change color balance or fix exposure later if necessary, or maybe even add art filter effects to a few special images. And one other time I captured RAW when I was short on time, and wanted to capture the image so that the JPEGs had an art filter effect applied, but then I could later batch process the RAW files to also have the straight versions on file. I have really been enjoying the freedom that capturing in JPEG has given me. I have been spending less of my time fixing images in the computer, and more time outside taking them. And that’s how I like it!

If you are a heavy volume shooter, why not give JPEG a chance? Here are a few tips to help you capture high quality JPEG images:

Here I wanted to enhance the warm tones in

the scene. Again, because of my camera’s

EVF (electronic viewfinder) I was able to see

the effects of my white balance changes in real

 time. In this scene, the yellow flower was in

 the shade composed against a background

that was in full sunlight. Normally I would

have chosen a white balance of 6000K. 
But because I wanted to enhance the
warmth I chose a WB of 7000K.
Captured as a JPEG, all color is as
captured in camera.

 Lock In Your White Balance

White balance takes on greater importance when capturing in JPEG mode. This is truer for some cameras than others. Past experience has proven that some cameras’ JPEGs are much more flexible in postprocessing than others. My Olympus 5000UZ digicam’s JPEGs have very little flexibility for postprocessing. There is very little room for error as the images will quickly loose detail and show digital artifacts. My previous dslr, an Olympus E1, can handle color corrections better but can only take small changes in exposure fixes before artifacts start appearing. My Olympus EM5 however renders JPEGs with more flexibility. I have been pleasantly surprised by this fact many times.

But nonetheless, it is still always better to get the white balance set correctly during the time of capture when shooting in JPEG mode. I have a lot of experience shooting so setting correct white balance in normal lighting conditions is not usually a problem. If it becomes a problem, I can always choose to switch to capture RAW or RAW+JPEG. Sometimes I like the way scene looks with different white balances, so I may decide to a shoot another series of the same subject with a different white balance. If I find myself dong that too much, I again will switch to a RAW capture setting. But the whole point of shooting in JPEG for me was to cut down on excess variations of images and save myself processing time, I have been finding myself committing to some of my artistic decisions and not shooting as many "safe" shots as I may have done at the beginning of the spring season.

Because I’m experienced, I often choose to manually choose white balance. Auto white balance can work in some situations, but it is too often confused by a subject's color and can pick the wrong color balance. This is true regardless of camera manufacturer – no matter how much they try to improve it. If shooting JPEGs, it is better to choose one of the white balance presents or for more experienced users, to manually enter a white balance number. A neat feature that many cameras have is a white balance bracketing feature. Like exposure bracketing, the camera will shoot a series of images with different white balance settings as specified by the photographer. Read your camera’s manual to find out how to correctly set white balance in your camera.

Lock In Your Exposure

This scene was easy to expose. Because of past

experience, I knew I would need to overexpose

 the image 1/3 to 2/3 more than an average meter

 setting. Because of my camera’s EVF, I could

see the exposure changes in real time and lock

in my camera settings quickly. As you may

 have guessed, I am a big fan of using my EVF

and live view. Especially when shooting JPEG.

Like white balance, exposure also gains greater importance. RAW files offer more flexibility in correcting exposure errors. So when shooting JPEG, make sure you get the exposure correct at the time of capture. Shooting JPEG these past couple of months has actually improved my photography as I now pay more attention to my exposure and white balance settings. It’s not that was a sloppy and careless shooter before, far from it. But sometimes just getting the exposure close enough was good enough because I knew I could take it the rest of the way in RAW processing. Now I am trying even harder to get it right in camera, and I have found that many of my newest images need absolutely no enhancements of any kind after capture. It is not only a time saver, but a necessity if you are capturing images in the JPEG format and want the highest quality images possible.

Picture settings and in camera special effects

can be real time savers. Again I chose my camera’s

pinhole art filter to render the intense color and

vignette. I captured this image in the RAW+JPEG

setting, with the picture mode set to art filter 6
(pinhole) so that I could view the effect in my
viewfinder in real time. This helped me compose this
image with the final effect in place. I used the RAW
file to develop a straight version, but I do prefer
this version and love it so much that I had a
print made of it.
Lock In Your Picture Settings

Use your camera’s highest quality JPEG setting, the one that offers the least compression ratio. Using higher compression rates will fit more images onto a card, but the image data will be compressed resulting in loss of detail and an increase of digital artifacts. It is very important to choose the lowest compression rate for the highest quality images.

As far as any other picture settings, that is a matter of personal taste and what gear you are using. For most photo situations, I like "middle of the road" type settings: Contrast 0, Sharpness 0, and Saturation/Picture Mode: Natural.

Each camera, photographer, and subject is different so you may decide on different settings. Some people like all those settings set to negative numbers such as: contrast –2 sharpness –2. To me, that produces too soft of an image. But that is the entire point, to capture a soft image that can later be manipulated into an image with more contrast and sharpness later. Some feel it renders a more beautiful look than shooting it that way in the first place. But I feel that if I need to do all that work later to enhance this soft JPEG image, then I might as well just shoot in RAW. My goal is to capture an image in camera that is as close to the finished image as possible. I’ll even occasionally set the contrast at a plus (or negative) setting if the scene warrants it, and will also increase or decrease color saturation as necessary. Some hot colors, like a bright red, need to be toned down a bit if any texture of the object (usually a flower petal in my case) to show through.
As far as the sharpness settings, I leave that at 0 and just add sharpness later on a per use basis after resizing for printing or display on the internet. Adding sharpness can introduce digital artifacts to the image, degrading image quality. This is not usually a problem if you are going to print at the files native resolution, but if you are going to upsize for printing or downsize for the web, it can be a problem. Some say setting the sharpness to a negative number and then adding sharpness later is the way to go, but it’s not a setting that I choose as I am happy with the images I have been producing at the 0 setting.

Another favorite in camera effect is my
Olympus OMD EM5’s dramatic tone art filter.
A unique effect that is hard to duplicate in
post processing, it is fun to play with. I found it
worked especially well for some of my recent
New York City photos. I did NOT shoot
this in JPEG. Because I felt the need to work fast,
 I opted to capture the image in RAW and added
the effect later during RAW processing in Olympus’
Viewer 3 software. But this image could have
just as easily been captured in JPEG, or
RAW+JPEG to save time on post processing.
Lock In Your Camera’s Special Features
Many cameras have special features and effects. Read your camera’s manual to find out what your camera uniquely has to offer you. I use an Olympus OMD EM5. Among the unique features it has, I particularly enjoy its art filters. After all, that was what got me shooting JPEG this summer.

Sometimes the effects can be gimmicky, especially when overused. But when used purposefully and with restraint, it can be a way to capture a stunning and artsy image in camera. The pinhole art filter has become a favorite of mine because it does in camera what I typically create in postwork which is to darken the edges and enhance color. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the darkening is too obvious or distracting or the image ends up being too contrasty. But when it does work, it is quite a wonderful thing. And no postwork required.

A special feature many cameras have is live view. In my case I have both an LCD live view on the back of my camera, and an electronic viewfinder. I have my camera set so that the display will change with changes in settings to the exposure for a what you see is what you get view. I also have the option of viewing a live histogram which can aid in exposure. Live view and my EVF are two more features that have helped with my JPEG experiments this summer. While it’s very possible to set exposure without the benefit of live view, it sure does make it faster and easier. Plus when using art filters, I can preview the effect in the viewfinder which helps me to visualize the finished image and choose the best composition.

Read your camera manual and experiment with some new effects and techniques to help you capture hiqh quality JPEGs.

Lock In Your Flexibility

Remember, you’re not locked into using a single file format. There’s no reason you can’t switch between Raw, JPEG, or RAW+JPEG. Most cameras make it easy to change file capture settings, either via a single button or via a menu.
I loved my summer JPEG experiment. Will I be shooting JPEG exclusively from now on? No, I won’t. When I need to work fast or I am working in a situation where I feel I may need to make many adjustments to that session’s photos, I will choose either RAW or RAW+JPEG. Yes, JPEGs can be great, but RAW still offers the greatest flexibility. And with autumn just around the corner, I am already making plans to go back to RAW+JPEG shooting again so that I can experiment with seeing which settings work best with my new camera and the autumn color palette. Perhaps I will experiment with new techniques and learn something new. And if I do, you can count on seeing a blog post about it. And if this post has inspired you to try capturing in the JPEG format, feel free to share your experiences in the comment section.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Rediscovering Your Kit Lens

This bench scene makes for a perfect kit lens subject.
Ah, the kit lens. It’s probably the most underrated lens in your gear bag. Most photographers get this lens as part of a kit along with the camera body. The quality of a kit lens can vary greatly from standard consumer quality to professional grade quality, often depending upon the level of camera body purchased. A s a general rule, pro rated bodies come packaged with a pro, or near pro, quality lens. If you are buying a consumer or enthusiast level body, the lens may be more of a standard level of quality. Perhaps even plasticy.

Often, photographers move on from that lens and start to add other lenses to their aresnal. The kit lens ends up getting pushed aside for the more recently purchased lenses. I know personally for myself that this has been the case over the years. As a fan of telephoto views and shallow focus imagery, I often find myself reaching for my longer telephoto zooms or my lensbaby.

But if I can only bring one lens with me, most often It will be my kit lens. It is the most basic lens in my bag, and I know that with it I can capture almost any subject I will encounter on a typical outing. At only 14-54mm (28-108mm in 35mm equivalent) I obviously won’t be capturing any extreme closeups of small and distant song birds. But if I need to capture images of people, general scenics, and even near macro quality close up of small but close subjects – my kit lens is quite capable of getting the job done.

Last year I spent quite a lot of time working with my extension tube that had recently purchased. As my most recently purchased lens accessory, it had become my most used accessory. I can use it with most of my lenses, but like to use it most with my 40-150mm lens. It’s a great pairing. But the widest aperture of that lens is 4.5 and it goes down to 5.6 as its widest opening at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Plus I lose a stop of light by using the extension tube. As a handheld shooter this can sometimes be a problem as the shutter speeds required for proper exposure are below what I can safely handhold the camera and still capture sharp images.

Reenter the kit lens. Now I admit, my 14-54mm kit lens is no shabby lens. It came packaged with the Olympus E-1, which was released as a professional camera. The lens is F2.8-3.5, a relatively wide aperture for a standard kit lens. It is solidly built with a metal lens mount and quality glass. It also has near macro level close focusing capabilities. Many kit lenses only have a maximum aperture of F3.5-5.6 and may not be able to focus as close as my kit lens can.

One day last year, as I was photographing flowers it got a little dark out as the clouds rolled in. The light was so dim that my favorite EX25 and 40-150mm lens combo was not able to do the job. The lighting was too dim to achieve a fast enough shutter speed for handholding and the viewfinder was too dark to focus. I decided to try something different. At first I pulled out my Lensbaby, and the results were nice as expected. But the Lensbaby 2.0 is no high grade optic, and is not known for capturing fine detail. That’s when I decided to play with my kit lens again.

Now, at that point my 14-54mm kit lens was far from retired. As the only lens in my bag with focal lengths lower than 40mm at that time, it was my go to lens for concerts, wrestling, and wider views. Really it’s just about perfect for any standard subject I might shoot. But I rarely use it for my portraits of single flowers, and most definitely not for capturing images of flowers with limited depth of field effects and interesting bokeh. Until recently that is.

On that day when the clouds rolled in and I decided to break out the kit lens and see what I could capture it, my eyes were opened to the potentials of using the kit lens for some of my flower portraits. I was pleasantly surprised at the results and now try to make use of it when doing my flower work. It won’t replace my telephotos and EX25 as my favorite setup for flower photography, but after seeing it’s potential I will now include it in my flower shooting repertoire.

So what about your own kit lens? When was the last time you used it? Not only used it, but actually took advantage of its unique qualities and got creative with it?

Some things to try are:

Get Close
Many kit standard zooms (in the 14-50mm range, not telephoto versions) have capabilities for close focusing. Check your lens’s specs to find out how close you can focus with yours. You may be surprised to find out it can focus quite close, it may even perhaps have a macro setting.

Long before that overcast day I speak about in this post, I discovered my kit lens could render beautiful bokeh if used "correctly." Correctly in this scene which I wished to render the softest bokeh possible, I chose the longest focal lenght available to me, used a wide aperture, and got as close to the spring blossom as possible. My kit lens may not be my lens of choice in this situation, but when it’s the only lens with you that’s when familiarity with your tools pays off.

Use The Entire Focal Range
If you are like the typical photographer, you may find yourself using a few of the focal lengths but you don’t make use of the entire focal range available to you. For example I use to use the wide and tele ends of my lens most often (even though image quality is typically best in the middle ranges, true of pretty much all lenses.) I favor the wide angle for my landscapes and the longer end for my flower and nature closeups. After taking those photos as you usually might, experiment with the other focal lengths that your lens has to offer you.
I usually start off at the widest or most telephoto settings available on my lens and zoom from there. Don't just leave your lens parked on one end or another, spin that zoom ring!

Zoom With Your Feet
Zooming with your feet, moving to frame the composition rather than relying on zooming, is a really great seeing exercise for photographers. Pick a single focal length, and get closer or back off from your subject to make the composition. This is the opposite advice from my previous tip. How does this help you rediscover your kit lens when your kit lens is a zoom lens? It helps you to learn how spatial relationships & focal lengths work in combination with eachother.

A combination of zooming with my feet and zooming on my lens enabled me to capture this composition with the lights of another ride perfectly positioned in the background in relationship to the carousel.

Experiment With Focal Lengths & Apertures

Try using different apertures and focal length combos to learn how they impact depth of field. I usually like shallow depth of field for my florals, so I often choose to shoot wide open and work close to my subjects. When I shoot some of my wide view landscapes, I generally like more depth of field to keep everything sharp. Because I have experimented with different focal lengths and apertures at home, I am able to choose which combination works best quickly when out in the field.

Though my 40-150mm was not purchased as part of a kit, it is one of Olympus’s telephoto kit lenses and it was used for this photo. Knowledge of what effect focal length & aperture combinations would render enabled me to effiently choose the right lens and settings for this scene. Past experience and familiarity with your equipment pays off.

Use Your Kit Lens In Situations You May Usually Not
Just as I had discovered a new use for my kit lens for my flower photography on that cloudy day, you too can discover a new use for your kit lens by simply using it in situations that you may not usually have chosen it normally.
For a subject like this, I would normally chose my 40-150mm and shoot with a reasonable distance between subject and camera. But this time I chose my 14-54mm and shot as close as possible.

Read Your Lens’s Manual
Read your lens’s manual to discover hidden features, such as macro settings for example, and standard features of the lens. Also included are lens specs including such important information as a lens’s closest focusing distance which is important to photographers that like to work close to their subjects.

I hope this blog post encourages you to rediscover your own kit lens! You can also use any of these exercises & tips to rediscover any of the lenses in your current kit.

At the time I originally wrote this, I only had one kit lens. I have since purchased the Olympus 14-42 II R micro Zuiko lens for my Olympus OMD EM-5. It is a standard consumer F4.5-5.6 lens. Nice image quality but no bokeh master and definitely no match for the 14-54mm in that respect. But it does focus faster and is much smaller and lighter, so if I need to travel light and need a quick focusing standard lens it is the lens of choice at the moment. The 14-54 is far from in retirement though, and sees frequent use with my at home flower photography. The Olympus pro micro version 14-54mm (the kit lens for Olympus’ professional camera OMD EM1) would be a more suitable replacement for my old kit lens, but is out of my budget at this time.
While my 14-42mm may be no 14-54, it does a more than adequate job. A neat little kit lens! And for those that are not familiar with Olympus lenses, the 35mm equivilent of any Olympus lens mentioned is 2x. IE: 14-54mm would be 28-108mm on a full frame 35mm camera.

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