Tag Archives: Workflow

July 2013 Wallpaper

July 2013 Wallpaper

For the July image I was looking for something evocative of fireworks and, a couple of days late, this is my attempt with one of our day lilies that have popped in the past few days.   We’ve been dealing with a bit of a low-scale heat wave here the past few days and the local flora has been withering under the heat and sun – so finding a dew-kissed blossom was not going to happen.   This is also a bit of a departure for me in terms of style – but I really couldn’t realistically create this image any other way (read the technical stuff if interested).  Let’s just say I continue to have a deep respect for those who do great macro photography and hope to someday get closer to those images.   I hope you enjoy the floral fireworks.

If you like the above image you can download it to your computer and use it as your desktop or tablet wallpaper. A few of the common screen sizes are available:

Download the 1024×768 version here. (Perfect for your iPad)

Download the 1280×1024 version here.

Download the 1680×1050 version here.

Download the 1920×1080 version here. (HDTV widescreen)

Technical details:  It was somewhere between impractical and impossible to capture this image in situ.   I may yet figure out a rig to make that possible, but for now this was a backyard flower moved to my living room and lit with some LED panels.  Because of all of the movement, some of the pollen fell off the pistil, which was really disappointing as it looked much cooler than what we have here.  I may try this again when it’s not an oven outside — perhaps a bit of moisture in the air might keep the pollen more attached.

So, this is also a composite photograph (generally known as a “focus stack”).   If it is technically possible to produce this image with a single exposure, it is beyond my equipment and ability.  Instead we take advantage of the image processing geniuses out there and use it to create something approximating what the human eye would perceive.  So here’s the rundown:  Canon 5D Mark II, 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 1/40 at f/4, ISO 320 on a tripod and focus controlled by a CamRanger.  The 35 “slices” were first processed with Lightroom 5: highlights -10, shadows +5, whites -10 to compress the tonal range a bit.   The slices were then processed with Zerene Stacker using the pMax algorithm.  The resulting composite image was touched up to remove stacking artifacts where pistil crosses into the flower.   The merged image was brought back into Lightroom 5 where we tweaked the exposure a bit more (-30 highlights, +0.3EV), added a bit of clarity and vibrance and sharpened it a bit (+58).

This was the “runner up” image for this month.   Is is a 40-slice composite of Spiraea (also blooming the the backyard) and not a bad second fireworks burst of color for the 4th…


Editing Canon 5D Mark 2 footage – tools and timings


The Canon 5D Mark 2 (and the 7D and a fair number of current video-capable DSLRs) record the footage using the H.264 codec.  I’ll leave it to others far more qualified than I as to the merits and lack thereof of this decision by the manufacturers.  For owners of the cameras wishing to use them for video it means you have some work to do after you shoot.

H.264 is often referred to as “distribution codec” — in other words it is optimized for end display rather than other purposes.  Of interest to the photographer this translates to “it is really lousy for editing”.

Because of the preponderance of its use in DSLR (and other) cameras I’ll predict that future editing suites will start to ingest H.264 footage directly, perhaps converting it quietly to some intermediate format — but until that time you’ll want to do this yourself before you edit your clips.

For about the past year, when I have a set of 5D clips for editing I’ve been transcoding them to Apple ProRes.  This is a high quality codec that works well with the editing tools.  It also eats up disk space like they have shares in Seagate.  I’ve heard of some folks using the XDCAM codec with a fair degree of success.  I’ve heard plenty of other people say “disk space is cheap” (which it is), but it isn’t free and it adds up quickly.

On Macintosh there are two tools that I have tried and used and I thought I’d share a few bits about them.  I edit using Apple’s Final Cut Pro Studio, which includes a transcoding swiss army knife called “Compressor”.    If you don’t have the budget for FCP Studio (and, as you will see, even if you do) you should look at “MPEG Streamclip” which has a number of great features including the ever popular price tag of free.  There are numerous excellent tutorials on each of these tools — just google around.

I’ve been using Compressor to transcode my 5D footage to Apple ProRes 422 pretty regularly because it has a really cool feature: droplets.  You can create droplets that correspond to specific Compressor settings and destinations, then either drag the input files to the droplet (or control-click to open the file(s) with the droplet.  As Emeril says.. “Bam!”

With the most recent release of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) Apple introduced some additions to the ProRes codecs.  Originally there were two variations, the normal or standard quality (at 147 Mbps) and the high quality codec (at 220 Mbps).  For most of us this roughly translates into taking a lot of disk space and taking up an enormous amount of disk space.  Unless you are producing a high-end film with lots of compositing (or have specific technical issues with the footage around grading) the HQ version was overkill.  For most of us, producing videos for the web or DVD, even the standard quality ProRes was over the top.  Enter ProRes 422 LT and ProRes 422 Proxy.  The LT codec tries to find a balance between quality and space at 102 Mbps while the ProRes Proxy dives down to 45Mbps and is suited for editing on laptops.  (Note that even at 45Mbps that’s 9X what Vimeo and YouTube HD are accepting videos at.)

I have yet to play with the Proxy codec extensively, but the LT codec looked very appealing and I wanted to explore some issues I had with the MPEG Streamclip program so I ran a few tests.   MPEG Streamclip has the reputation of being very fast – and in a few tests I was running I never saw this.  The devil being in the details of course.   I also noted a gamma shift in MPEG Streamclip footage which bothered me.  Again, it was worth looking at a bit closer.

First the “gamma shift” problem.  Here is the output of the same video clip transcoded by Compressor (on the left) and MPEG Streamclip (on the right) as displayed by Quicktime Player:


It’s pretty obvious that the MPEG Streamclip footage is darker.  Apparently this is caused by a small difference in the Quicktime file metadata.  Compressor adds a “gamma” tag that MPEG Streamclip does not.  The result is that Quicktime Player displays them differently.   Here’s the fun part: Final Cut Pro doesn’t look at this gamma tag, or does it differently.  The result is that the footage looks the same.  Here is a short Quicktime video of the same clip alternating between Compressor and MPEG Streamclip:

[qt:/video/2009-transcode-comp.mov 640 360]

Maybe a more well-trained eye can spot a difference, but I can’t.  So when it comes to editing it appears to me that the resulting clips are equivalent.  Whew!

With quality out of the way, that leaves just space and time to consider.  I processed 16 5DMk2 H.264 clips totaling 7 minutes of footage and consuming 2GB of disk space.

Depending on the project I often try to save disk space by converting the footage from the native 1080p to 720p (times are min:sec):

To ProRes 422 LT 720p via Compressor: 12:44 and 2.3GB
To ProRes 422 LT 720p via MPEG Streamclip: 14:52 and 2.3GB

To ProRes 422 LT 1080p via Compressor: 17:17 and 4.5GB (2.2X original)
To ProRes 422 LT 1080p via MPEG Streamclip: 10:54 and 4.5GB

Kinda eye-popping counterintuitive results there.  If you want to save disk space by downsampling to 720p, use Compressor.  If you want fast conversions the use MPEG Streamclip with no resizing.

For disk space comparisons, the standard quality ProRes 422 at 1080p would take 6.9GB (3.5X original files, MPEG Streamclip transcoded them in 11:46) .

My test configuration was pretty mundane and this was not an attempt to get the best performance out of either tool, but rather to see how they performed “out of the box”.   Source and destination files were to the same drive (as you would on a laptop). Compressor has ways of using multiple systems to distribute the encoding and improve the performance.  MPEG Streamclip has the ability to run multiple transcodes at once.  If you have a lot of fast CPUs in your system, this can certainly help.  I have a quad-processor MacPro and neither program would drive the system to full CPU capacity.  By adding increasing the MPEG Streamclip to 2 simultaneous tasks I was able to trim some time off the transcoding and saw the system CPU utilization approach 80%.  Adding a 3rd task didn’t do anything to increase utilization.  Those of you with 8-CPU boxes would likely see a benefit from using these features to take advantage of parallelism in your system.

I mentioned ProRes 422 Proxy and I think I will dig into this a bit more.  It has a data rate of 45Mbps.  The Canon 5D Mark 2 with the current firmware clocks in around 38Mbps – but I don’t know if this is an apples to apples comparison.  MPEG Streamclip transcoded the test files to ProRes Proxy at 720p in about 14 minutes and the resulting files were just 1.1GB (half of the original) and the full 1080p transcode took about 10 minutes and the resulting files were 2.2GB (slightly larger than the originals).  I, quite honestly, didn’t see much of a difference between the full ProRes standard quality and the Proxy transcoded files with the 5D footage, so this deserves a bit more investigation to understand exactly what kinds of scenes are being compromised.  If the typical delivery is going to be 720p web video (or an SD DVD) and you are doing minimal grading and editing, using the ProRes Proxy format may turn out to be a perfect editing format and you can always reconnect to higher quality versions (standard or LT) if you need them.  Certainly something worth investigating further.

A Yellow Lightroom Tip

Color perception is a very tricky thing and you might be surprised to learn that your camera’s manufacturer and/or your photo processing software has a “color personality”.   Where I’ve noticed it most prominently with my equipment (I shoot with Canon cameras and process the images with Adobe Lightroom) is with the yellow response.  (Just to be clear, what follows is true for any color image.  I’m just zeroing in on yellow as an example.)

Before I go any further I have to note that if you are concerned about color fidelity (and it’s just fine if you are not) then you need to have your monitor calibrated with a colorimeter gizmo like ColorVision Spyder or some similar device.   After you do this you can decide if you want to be obsessive about color or just concerned.   Obsessives (or people whose livelihood depends on accurate color) will have very special lighting, neutral gray walls in their room, etc.     I’m not one of those people.

This image of Black-Eyed Susans provides a great demonstration of when faced with an unexpected color response from your equipment and workflow, Lightroom has some interesting tools for you.  (I guess I should mention that we’re talking about RAW files here.  If you shoot JPEG you can pretty much skip this article.)

The first thing you want to check is your white balance.   You should have it set to the temperature you’d expect to have at that time (or, if you happen to have a neutral test target with you, image that and use it as the reference).   I’m speaking generally here, but the biggest thing the white balance control is “fighting” is the blue cast of the sky.   Because yellow’s complementary color is blue, the white balance has a significant impact on what kind of yellow tone you are going to end up with.

The camera’s response to yellow, and your software’s interpretation of it is subject to a mathematical color response profile.  Different profiles = different color for the same object.   In Lightroom’s Develop module you will find the Camera Calibration panel.  I wrote about this some time ago and it’s something I head to whenever the image Lightroom throws up on the screen doesn’t match my, ahem, perfect memory of the scene.   By selecting different profiles I can usually find one that comes much closer to what I feel the colors should be.

By default, Lightroom uses an “Adobe Standard” color profile – but there are other profiles you can use that have been developed to mimic equipment manufacturer profiles.  (If you shoot JPEG, it is these settings in the camera you can tweak to get the color closer to what you want – but you have to make the change BEFORE you take the image.)

When I imported the flower photo, this is what Lightroom gave me:


More orange than yellow.   Canon’s idea of yellow wasn’t that much better.  This is the Canon Camera Standard profile’s view:


Pushing into pumpkin territory (on my monitor).

I finally settled for the “Camera Neutral” profile, which provided me with a satisfying yellow for this image.

The purpose of this article wasn’t to find the scientifically faithful color match.  There are all sorts of ways of bending colors in digital images to do your bidding.   But if you find yourself looking at an image and thinking that it “isn’t quite right”, remember the Calibration panel and try experimenting with the profiles that are provided by Adobe (and I’m sure some folks out there have developed custom ones as well).   You might be two or three clicks away from having an image you are much happier with color-wise.

REALLY getting it right in the camera…

This morning I was a contract shooter for a company that photographs triathlons. This was a big event – over 3,400 women athletes participating in the swim / bike / run race sponsored by Danskin (they’ve been doing this for 20 years now).

This also marks the first time I’ve shot JPEG in probably 8 years (and likely the first time my 1DMk2 has ever been in JPEG mode!) and possibly the most my flash has ever been used.  I shot over 1,700 photos in 4 hours (which is probably low compared to others on the photo team) and while it is embarrassing to say considering what the athletes were going through, it was pretty intense as a photographer and I think I sweated several pounds off today.  (I also have no idea how well I did because they keep all of the photos — a bit nerve-wracking.)

The challenge, for me, is one that photojournalists deal with all the time and my respect for their ability to pull that off on a daily basis could not be higher.  I normally shoot in RAW mode, which has numerous benefits but has one significant drawback: it demands a certain amount of post-processing (using a program like Lightroom or Aperture).   When you have 8 shooters and 3,400 subjects that equals a potential 10-20K images that need to be processed at the end of the event — so they are counting on the photographers to deliver “finished” images in the camera: exposure, composition, and white balance.

When one shoots RAW and expects to do some post-processing you can be a bit more cavalier about  some things.  White balance is one thing that I NEVER worry about in the field — that’s something I consider to be thought about and chosen later.  I’m usually pretty picky about the exposure, but composition kind of sits in the middle: there are times when I know I’m going to crop the photo later on so the composition in the camera isn’t as important.   (I also don’t think about whether or not the image fits nicely in an 8×10 frame.)

Interestingly, many of these disciplines of getting the white balance and other aspects of the image nailed down are still required for video.   Until we all get the equivalent of a RED camera (which is probably only a 2-4 years away) that shoots RAW video, it’s very costly to not get all aspects of the shot right in the camera.

With all that said, if you want to sharpen your action photography skills I can highly recommend trying to photograph a race (say a finish line or some other discrete event).  When the goal of having full-frame individual photos of each participant comes up against 8 athletes arriving more or less at the same time, you learn how to prioritize, frame, and shoot very quickly.  While your pulse may not be the same as someone finishing a half-mile swim, you’ll probably be burning some calories.   Add in that there’s no “RAW crutch” and there might even be a little sweat fogging up the eyepiece.

Anyway, my camera is safely back in RAW mode and after I clean off the beach sand and sweat stains it’ll be back to my comfortable shooting practice.  But it was certainly fun to have to perform “out of my element”, if only for a few hours.

And to the 3,000+ women who ran today’s Danskin triathlon: you are all amazing.

First cut of a nature video short


With the start of this new year I will be adding video to my web site’s portfolio galleries. This is the first cut of a planned portfolio video and I thought it would be fun to share this early draft with folks. 

The basic edits and transitions are done.  The footage is straight out of the camera and hasn’t been “graded” — the video/cinema term of fine-tuning contrast, color temperature, saturation, etc. that all digital photographs go through to reflect the feeling I want to convey.

The title of the video is “Assabet Winter Mornings” and was shot during two very cold (sub-zero for a while) mornings that we had here last week. All but one shot was from my backyard (another was from a neighbor’s yard that I hope will provide additional footage and photos in the future).

Music by Duke Levine (thanks Duke!).

Technical/Workflow Gory Details

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR.  Lenses used: 70-200mm f/2.8 L, 24-70mm f/2.8 L, 16-35mm f/2.8 L, 500mm f/4 L.  Tripod + ball head.  (There are no camera moves in this video.)

White balance locked at 5700K. The camera doesn’t give much control on exposure, so I use exposure compensation to approximate what I’m looking for.

I didn’t use an external microphone for this video.  That’s the next step in my workflow.  So the ambient sounds (which is basically pink noise anyway)  are from the built-in mic, and happily buried under the music. 

Fine focus was typically done with the camera AF, but occasionally I would verify or fine-tune it using the 5x magnification (a technique I use regularly with my 40D camera).

The files were imported to my laptop using my custom process that renames stills and movies the way I like and sends the still images to a folder that Lightroom imports stills from and another folder for video clips.

I use the Quick Preview option in OS X Leopard to quickly review clips and toss the ones that I don’t like.  (If I was in the field and wanted to hack together a quick video I would use iMovie, which handles the footage pretty well).

Back at the office, I copy the video clips to a intermediate folder and again review the clips with Quick Preview on a big monitor.  More culling.  Candidate clips for the project are then dragged to a Compressor droplet.

I set up two droplets to transcode the H.264 files to Apple ProRes 422 HQ.  One of the droplets keeps the resolution native, while the other resizes the footage to 720p.   I figure why burn the disk space for projects that are only destined for the web — and I can recut it with full-res clips if I need to.

ProRes clips are then imported into a Final Cut Pro project.  Edit as normal.   The video above contains no grading – I plan to send the video through Color before I put the final rendering in my portfolio.

For the above clip, I ran the edited video through Compressor using an H.264 codec, at 5Mbps.  (I tried 3Mbps and it just looks horrible with all of the movement.)   Voila!