Archive for the ‘Digital photo’ Category

Buy this book. Abraham Lincoln would have wanted it that way.

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

htde-camera5 Well, I’m pleased to announce that my latest book has hit the stores. I’ve revised How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera to its glorious 5th edition. I should point out that Osborne McGraw-Hill has decided to drop the grammatical connective tissue "with your" from the title, so now, it’s apparently just called "How to Do Everything Digital Camera."

I’ve pointed out to anyone who cares to listen that revised book title now sounds like a self-help volume aimed not at digital camera owners, but instead at the digital cameras themselves, packed, perhaps, with advice on empowering these little electronic marvels to do anything they set their minds to. As if the titling editor was inspired by Phil Hartman’s classic "Let’s Fix, Robots" sketch.

Well, that’s neither here nor there. The book is available, and I’ve extensively updated it with all sorts of new information–it’s the biggest update this book has ever gotten. There’s now a chapter dedicated to Digital SLR owners, with advice on keeping the sensor clean. There are details about how to create hyper-realistic images with High Dynamic Range, infinite (or stacked) focus, false close-ups, and more. The file format chapter has been dramatically reworked to include the most up-to-date information on working with RAW images (as well as JPG and others). The book talks about managing photos in both Windows XP and Windows Vista. And, of course, many of the photo examples are new, including the entire color section in the middle of the book. You’ll still find essential information like understanding exposure, how to compose a photo and control lighting, as well as how to edit a photo on the PC. This book is ideal for beginner and intermediate photographers.

It is available at Amazon as well as your neighborhood book store. Go buy a copy for yourself, and get a few more for friends and neighbors. Remember: not only is this an awesome book for anyone new to digital photography, but buying enough copies might bring forth world peace, cure cancer, and summon magical unicorns that will fly us to work each day without the need for carbon-emitting automobiles.

Do you want to save the planet? Show it by buying my book.

Turn Real Life into a Miniature

Friday, November 9th, 2007

There’s something magical about macro photography–getting up close to a tiny subject is one of the most exciting ways to use a digital camera. But why stop there? Almost any photo editing program lets you turn that idea on its head and make ordinary pictures look like they are actually miniatures!

Tell-Tale Signs

Even without thinking about it, your know when you’re seeing a photograph of a miniature. Usually, it’s the depth of field that gives things away. If you fly over a city and photograph the skyline with a wide angle lens, the entire scene will appear in sharp focus. But try to photograph a miniature, and the camera will only be able to keep a particular section of the photo in focus–the foreground and background will quickly “roll off” into an out of focus blur.

doll_house1Simulating a Doll House

Thankfully, it’s easy to achieve that same effect with a photo editing program.

Take this photo of my kitchen, for example, which I shot while my house was still under construction.

I was curious if I could make it look like a doll house by creatively blurring the scene.

Miniaturizing in Photoshop Elements

Open the photo that you want to miniaturize in Photoshop Elements.

The first order of business is to select a horizontal band in the photo that represents the section of sharpest focus. This is where the camera would be focusing if you were shooting a miniature version of the scene in macro mode. To do that, select the Rectangular Marquee tool (fifth cubby from the top in the toolbar) and drag it across the screen through the middle.

Now choose Select, Inverse from the menu. Choose Select, Feather, and set the feathering to about 25 pixels. Click OK.

We’re almost done. Now just choose Filter, Blur, Gaussian Blur, and set the level to 4.0. Click OK. Turn off the selection (choose Select, Deselect.)

You’ll end up with something like this:


That’s not bad–it definitely has a doll house vibe. I especially like the way the blurry stairs look tiny and fake, as if they were made of balsa wood. To read a somewhat more detailed version of this tutorial, see my PC World Digital Focus newsletter.

Vacation Photos from the Airplane Window

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

It seems that no matter where you go on vacation, there’s always some sort of airplane or helicopter tour available to let you get a better view. In fact, as you read these words, I plan to be on vacation, booking a sightseeing charter on some small plane. (I’ll try to send you a postcard.)

Even on an ordinary airline trip, there are some cool sights to be seen out the tiny little window. The next time you find yourself boarding a plane, snap a few shots. If you’re getting ready for your summer vacation, remember to pack your digital camera and remember these tips for getting some great shots from the passenger window. 


Plan Ahead 

If you’re headed off for a sightseeing trip, let the aircrew know you have a camera and would like a seat that is closer to one of the large windows. That’s not always possible–in a helicopter, for example, they arrange passengers by weight–but it doesn’t hurt to ask. In addition, if you’re on a sightseeing flight, ask the pilot before you take off if you can open any of the windows. Sometimes, regulations prohibit open windows, but getting glass out of the way can dramatically improve your shots. And, at the risk of being really annoying, if you’re stuck shooting through glass, ask if you can clean the windows beforehand. I once was positioned in front a horribly dirty window, but I asked and–voila!–ground crew wiped it down for me before we took off. I got much nicer photos as a result.  

Watch Out for Vibrations 

So, there you are: 10,000 feet in the air and circling the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, a Hawaiian waterfall, or the Statue of Liberty. The first thing you should remember is not to lean any part of the camera or lens against the airplane itself (including the window). It might seem like a good idea to steady the camera, but the reality is that the vibration from the engine will ruin your photos. Instead, be sure to suspend the camera in front of you, careful to keep from transmitting vibrations from the wall and window to your camera.  

Shoot Fast 

Likewise, shoot at the highest shutter speed possible to counteract the natural motion of the aircraft. If you camera has a shutter priority or action photography mode, you can use that. The more you zoom, the higher your shutter speed should be; if you’re taking a wide angle, panoramic-style shot of the earth below you, a leisurely 1/30 or 1/60 second might be enough. But if you take advantage of your camera’s 10X optical zoom to pick a squirrel out of a tree from a helicopter that’s 5,000 feet in the air, you should be shooting at the fastest speed your camera can muster. To help your camera find a faster speed, try increasing the ISO a little.  

Don’t Focus 

At the distances you’ll be shooting, there’s no need to focus your camera; everything will be at “infinity.” If your camera has a manual focus mode, use that mode and then set the focus on infinity. The advantages? You don’t have to wait while the camera fruitlessly searches for the right focus before each shot, and you don’t risk the camera accidentally focusing on dirt on the aircraft window and ruining your shot.  If your camera doesn’t have a manual focus control, then it almost certainly has a “landscape” exposure mode (sometimes called a scene setting). One of the things that Landscape does is set your camera to focus at infinity, so that’s a good substitute. Oh, and one more thing — for the love of god, turn off the flash. You can’t illuminate the bottom of the Gand Canyon with the flash on your camera, you can only get a huge, honkin’ reflection off the airplane window.

Become a Simpsons Character

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

While the rest of the world breathlessly awaits a stupid music phone that only has 8GB of storage (there are Yes albums that probably take up more space than that) here in the Johnson household, it is Simpsons Movie Anticipation that is running high. 

If you’re in the same boat, be sure to pass the time at the new Simpsons Movie website, where you can make your own highly customized character. This one, for instance, looks just like me. Except I don’t really have a Blinky t-shirt. 

But I should.

Looking for a way to save a digital version of your character? ‘Ol Matt Groening doesn’t appear to give you a way to do anything but print your creation.

Well, here’s what I did: I clicked the Print button on the website but selected the Windows Vista XPS printer driver, which saved the character as a file on my computer. Then I opened the XPS version in a browser window, screencaptured it, and used Photoshop Elements to save it as a JPG. More work than it should have been, but hey, it’s free entertainment.  

Put a billion dollar satellite system to use

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

A few years ago, I went on a little photo trek and showed off the photos. I vividly remember getting grilled about the various locations by a friend of mine. “Where were these taken?” she asked me about a particular set of photos. “Hmm,” I replied, “I don’t remember. I took so many photos, I can’t keep track.” If only there was some automatic way to tag my photos with location information, so they’d be able to tell me where they were taken. Yet another thing I’d never have to remember ever again!

Well, my wish has come true–geotagging is here. Actually, it has been here for a while, but it’s finally starting to almost-sorta reach the mainstream.

Geotagging is the term for adding location information to your photo files so they automatically know exactly where they were taken. And it’s one of the coolest things ever to happen to digital photography.

So how can a photo know where it was taken? With GPS, of course! GPS, that system of navigation satellites that most of us now take for granted to navigate around in cars, is also a nifty way to geotag your photos. In a perfect world, a GPS reciever would be built into all digital cameras. But right now, that’s not the case. Instead, we need to somehow marry GPS and photography to make geotagging work.

I’ve recently been experimenting with what is surely the most elegant geotagging tool ever made. I’m talking about Red Hen’s Blue2CAN.

In my experience, a better geotagging solution does not exist. It’s a small gadget about the size of your thumb that plugs into a small port on the front of several Nikon Digital SLRs, including the D200, D2X, D2Xs and D2Hs. It communicates wirelessly to any Bluetooth GPS receiver (like the kind that comes with inexpensive navigation programs and sits on your dashboard).

Blue2CAN automatically tags your photos (both JPG and RAW) as you take them with GPS data (all the usual stuff: latitude, longitude, and altitude), and that info is automatically readable by mapping and organizing software. Take a few pictures with Blue2Can attached to your D200, and upload them to your Flickr page, for example. Flickr adds a “map” link to each picture–click it and you can see exactly where it was taken. Even cooler: you can view all your photos as pushpins on a map, so you can go on a virtual walking tour of that Grand Cayman vacation.

My first experience with Blue2CAN was on a little photo trek last weekend out past Granite Falls, Washington, in search of a few little waterfalls. I put the Dell GPS puck in my jacket pocket and just took photos normally. The GPS reciever kept a solid lock on the satellites–I never even had to think about it–and my camera, via Blue2CAN, kept sync with the reciever, as proven by the 150-or-so photos I inspected at home, each of which had embedded geotags.

Some of those photos were parts of a series of high dynamic range (HDR) photos, and I was disappointed to find that when I combined photos in Photomatix Pro, the GPS data was stripped out of the final composite image. But all the other shots did just fine, even after being edited in Lightroom and Photoshop. You can see a few examples of my geotagging expereince on my Flickr page, or just go direxctly to my map (which, at the moment, just just a few geotagged images, but that will no doubt change now that Blue2CAN is my new best friend).

Look for more about geotagging–including other ways to geotag your photos if you don’t own a Nikon D-SLR–in an upcoming Digital Focus newsletter. I’ll update this post when that issue goes live.

Aliens over Seattle

Friday, April 27th, 2007

I’m proud to say that, like Former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, I’ve observed a UFO. Unlike Symington, though, I didn’t recognize the alien encounter for what it was at the time that it occurred. Heck, I didn’t know anything at all had happened.

You see, a few months ago I was snapping some photos while on a Argosy dinner cruise in Puget Sound, entertaining my folks. Last night, I was checking out the photos in Adobe Lightroom, which I’ve recently been reviewing. I noticed something odd about this photo of the Space Needle. It’s way too small for you to see in this tiny reproduction, so you’ll have to take my word for the shock and awe I experienced.

What, you ask, did I see? What looked liike a few stray pixels in the sky. I zoomed in, and saw that, at full size, the anomaly looked more like this:

My word! That’s not a bird, nor a plane, nor Dr Stephen Hawking doing zero-G maneuvers. Nope, there’s only one possible explanation: aliens. For more evidence, I zoomed in to 100%, and ran a little Unsharp Mask action on the scene to accentuate the edges. I got this:

Actually, I don’t know what the heck it is. It doesn’t look a whole lot like an airplane or a helicopter to me. And that would have to be one gigantanourmous bird. So until someone has a better idea, I’ll just assume it’s a visitor from Gliese 581C. I, for one, welcome our new pixelated overlords. 

How Low Will They Go?

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

I’ve started working on the fifth edition of How To Do Everything with Your Digital Camera, which should be out in the fall. I’ve decided to rewrite large parts of this book from scratch this time around. So much has changed in digital photography and image editing in the last few years that I want to include all sorts of new stuff. After all, since I last overhauled the book, there’s been a veritable revolution in digital photography. Fewer and fewer folks print at home, instead using online stores and local print shops. Digital SLRs are getting incredibly popular. New techniques like high dynamic range photography are rewriting the rules about what it’s possible to do with a camera. And my old favorite image editor, Paint Shop Pro, can’t seem to keep up with Adobe goodies like Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. So look for a lot of changes in the book this year.

 One old standard that I am keeping in the book is a chart in the first chapter that shows how digital camera prices have plummted in recent years even as their quality and capabilities have gone up. I just finished getting some new average camera prices for the table, and thought I’d share it here.    


Interesting. You can see the lowest end of the camera market has disappeared completely–now, those cameras just come built into mobile phones. And where were the 3 and 4 megapixel cameras in 2006? Pretty much gone. Most of the cameras introduced that year were six megapixel or more, with higher end cameras topping 10 and even 12 megapixels. In 2006, a typical 10 megapixel camera cost $400. That would have bought you a 2 megapixel camera in 2001!

Use ISO to Take Low-Light Photos

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Light is both a photographer’s best friend and worst enemy. Consider what happened to me recently, for instance. I visited a wild animal park with the hope of taking some pictures of wolves, cougars, and bears. Unfortunately, it had rained all morning, and the sky was dark and overcast when I arrived at noon.

 As I prepared to take my first photo, I found that the camera was so starved for light that it wanted to set the exposure at about 1/10 second–far too slow to get a sharp image of active animals, especially since I was hand-holding the camera.

So what did I do? I increased the ISO.


As you might recall from the days of film cameras, film comes in a variety of speeds. Film speed is measured using a numbering system called ISO (sometimes also referred to by its geezer name, ASA). Lower ISO numbers are known as “slow” films, which are less sensitive to light, while higher ISO numbers are more sensitive to light. It’s pretty typical to shoot with ISO 100 or 200 in normal daylight, and use 400 film for lower light photography. Super-fast films like ISO 800 and even ISO 1600 are available for photography in near darkness. 

Here’s the secret code that governs film speed: doubling the ISO number of the film doubles its sensitivity to light. So ISO 200 film needs half the light to take the same picture as ISO 100 film. ISO 400 film needs a quarter of the light that ISO 100 needs. In other words, if your camera would try to capture a particular low-light scene with a shutter speed of 1/15 second at ISO 100, you could capture it at 1/60 second at ISO 400. That’s an incredibly powerful capability that means the difference between getting a blurry mess and a sharp photo. 

What ISO Means for Digital

Big deal, right? This is the world of digital now, not film. We don’t buy memory cards with ISO speeds marked on them the way we used to pick film boxes for their ISO numbers. So what does all this have to do with us?

As it happens, you can control the sensitivity of your camera’s light sensor by changing the camera’s ISO setting. By default, most digital cameras have an ISO somewhere around 100. If you need more film speed for low light conditions, getting more sensitivity out of your camera is as simple as selecting a higher ISO from the camera’s menu. Most digital cameras offer a range of ISO values, such as 100, 200, and 400. Some cameras go much higher–all the way to 3200, in fact. Just dial in the ISO you need.  By increasing the ISO, I was able to get pictures like this wolf at the animal park–but at the default ISO, everything would have just been a blurry, slow-shutter mess.

The Dark Side of Film Speed

That sounds great, right? So I know what you’re thinking: If higher ISO film is more light sensitive, why not always use a high ISO number?

Unfortunately, light sensitivity brings its own baggage. High speed film was notoriously grainy. As you increased film’s sensitivity to light, the light-sensitive grains of silver halide in the film emulsion got bigger and more noticeable. In the final print, that manifested itself as grain–irregular, pixel-like elements in the photo that took away the photo’s smooth, high-resolution look. Ironically, in the world of digital, we have almost exactly the same effect when choosing ISO values. Increasing the sensitivity of the camera’s light sensor introduces digital noise into the picture. Similar to film grain, noise is random pixels of color.

You may not notice noise from a distance, but if you zoom in on a digital photo on the computer screen or look closely at a print, it’s hard to miss. All digital images have some amount of noise, but it gets worse as the ISO goes up.  Check out the small detail of a high-ISO photo, for instance. The noise–appearing in the form of colored speckles–is quite apparent.

ISO Advice

So what should you do about ISO? I suggest shooting at the lowest possible ISO all the time. In ordinary shooting conditions, stick with the camera’s lowest ISO level, since that’ll give you the least digital noise. But when you notice that the camera is recommending a really slow shutter speed, crank up the ISO. Just remember to drop it back down to the lower value when you’re done, so you don’t accidentally capture a month’s worth of pictures at ISO 800.

Another thing to keep in mind: most digital cameras don’t allow you to adjust the ISO (or any other setting for that matter) when you’re in Automatic exposure mode. To tweak the ISO, you’ll want to be in Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or a Scene mode.

 Want to learn more? Check out my recent Digital Focus newsletter on minimizing the effects of digital noise.

Shooting in the Snow

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Everyone has their favorite time of year. For me, it’s summer–warm days, refreshing lemonade, scuba diving, and nary a driveway or sidewalk to be plowed or shoveled. Indeed, there’s nothing I hate more than dealing with heavy, slushy, slippery snow.  On the other hand, there’s nothing quite so picturesque as a fresh snowfall. Snow makes for great photos, so I have an uneasy truce with the white stuff. The deal goes something like this: I’ll take pictures of it, as long as my son does most of the shoveling.  

Prep Your Camera 

If you want to take pictures out in the cold and snow, it can help to prepare your camera gear for the job. Most digital cameras handle the elements pretty well, but cold, snowy days can push your hardware to its limits. The most important thing to keep in mind is that batteries conk out more quickly in the cold, so having a spare, and keeping that spare warm, can come in handy. Here’s what I do: I keep a second, fully charged battery deep inside my jacket, where my body heat can help keep it warm and healthy. If my camera’s primary battery dies, I swap them. My body heat revives the first battery while I shoot with the spare, so I can get a few more shots out of it if necessary. People often ask me if there’s also a risk of condensation and fog forming on the camera lens. Some photographers even place their cameras inside plastic bags to avoid this problem. But the reality is that such condensation can’t form when going from warm to cold, so you’re safe outdoors in the snow (just don’t drop your camera in a snow bank).   

Adjust for Snow 

When you finally get your camera out in the winter wonderland, remember that snow is a somewhat different kind of subject than most of the things you typically photograph. Snow is extremely reflective, and it can confuse your camera’s exposure sensor. In the presence of a lot of snow, many cameras will try to underexpose the photograph. There are a couple of ways around this common problem. The simplest solution is to set your camera to its Snow or Beach “scene” mode, if it has one. This is a pre-programmed exposure setting that takes bright, highly reflective subject matter like sand and snow into account and overexposes the picture automatically.  Alternately, you can overexpose the picture yourself using the camera’s exposure compensation dial. Overexpose the shot by setting the control to about +1, which will overexpose the scene by one stop (which admits twice as much light into the photo).  

Mind the Time of Day

You probably already know that the color of light changes during the day, and that’s especially true when you’re shooting snow, which will add up to a predominantly white scene. If you take your camera out very early or late in the day, you’ll end up with warmer photos, in which the snow takes on reddish hues. If you stick to midday, you’ll get much cooler, more blue photos.  

Try Some Close Ups 

When people think of winter photography, they instinctively imagine grand, snow-laden trees and a picturesque row of houses covered in snow. Those subjects are fine, but you can get some really interesting shots by getting close to your subject and shooting in macro mode (which is activated by the button with the little “tulip” icon).  If you get close enough, you can capture individual ice crystals on blades of grass or the edges of pine cones.

How can you replicate these kinds of images? For starters, it helps to use a tripod. Since you’re so close to the subject, even small amounts of jiggle will ruin the photo. And since it’s cold out, it’s a lot harder to hold the camera steady. So even if you could pull off shots like these in the middle of summer, I doubt you can do it in the middle of January. Also, experiment with the flash both on and off. If the flash is on, the extra illumination can help freeze the photo, but it can add an artificial, antiseptic look to the shot. Better to try it with natural light, though you will probably want to increase the camera’s ISO setting to shorten the exposure time.

Check out a somewhat longer version of this story in my Digital Focus newsletter for PC World.

Get Your Photos Organized

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Over the holidays, I took about a hundred photos around the house. I also managed to fill up a memory card while photographing wolves at the nearby wildlife refuge and, just a few weeks ago, I snapped a truckload of “light trail” style night photos from a pedestrian overpass in Las Vegas. Every one of those photos has found its way onto my PC, and that’s in addition to the thousand or so photos I took during 2006 alone. Finding a specific photo is a daunting task. Heck, with so many photos, I often completely forget that some shots ever happened, and I’m surprised when I find them by accident months later. Clearly, it’s time to get organized.

Rename or Tag?

The first bit of advice you’re likely to hear when it comes time to getting your photos organized is to use a logical system to rename them. But I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think that renaming your photos is a particularly effective solution for getting organized. It’s slow and tedious (just the sort of combination you want when there’s an activity you aren’t especially motivated to do in the first place), and when you’re done, it only makes your photos marginally easier to find. I far prefer the newfangled solution of tagging your photos with metadata.

If you haven’t heard me rant in my weekly Digital Focus column about the virtues of tagging already, here’s what I’m talking about: using photo organizer software, you can assign “tags” or “keywords” to each of your photos. If you put a little thought into your tags, you can create a dozen or so categories that reflect all the common photo subjects you routinely shoot: family, pets, holidays, soccer practice, Elvis sightings, and such. It’s about the same amount of work as renaming photos, but when you want to see all your holiday photos, just click that tag in your photo software and you’ll see them all. Plus, you don’t have to type the same tag over and over. Create a tag once, and then just drag and drop photos to that tag to assign it.

If You’re Not Daring

That said, I understand that not everyone wants to go to the trouble of tagging–or you simply might not own the appropriate software. If that sounds like you, at least you can rename your photos from obscure camera-speak like DSC000023 to “Barbara at the beach.”

If you really get into organizing your photos by file name, the Windows method may start to seem kind of anemic. For beefier file naming, try a favorite program of mine: for just $10, Name Dropper lets you create a slew of name fragments and assign them to a dozen customizable buttons. To rename photos, combine the fragments into descriptive compound names. Or try Siren, a free program that gives you access to the metadata associated with your photos. You can combine snippets of info like your camera model, ISO, exposure data, lens information, and date taken to create truly informative file names for your photos, automatically.

Tagging: Like Renaming Without all the Lame

As I already mentioned, renaming your photos was fine in 1997, but these days I highly encourage you to try tagging. There are some superb photo organizers out there with great photo tagging features. My favorites include Adobe Photoshop Elements–which comes with Photoshop Album–and Microsoft Digital Image Suite, which features Digital Image Library. Both programs let you assign tags (Digital Image Library calls them Labels) to your photos and then swoop in to see any set of photos that correspond to any term you choose. And if you’re considering stepping up to Windows Vista, the superb, built-in Photo Gallery stores its tags in the photos as well. And that I really love, becuase now your tags are baked into your files at the operating system level.

Check out a somewhat longer version of this story in my Digital Focus newsletter for PC World.