Archive for April, 2007

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.