Unrepeatable Images of the Alan Turing Building

I work in the Alan Turing Building at the University of Manchester. Next to the building is an area of green space affectionately known as “Tellytubbie land” in view of its undulations.

That land will be the home of the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, on which construction has recently started. Unfortunately, the new building will dominate the Alan Turing Building, being many storeys higher than it and 8 metres away from it.

Last autumn I took advantage of the excellent mid-October weather to take some photos of the Alan Turing Building that I knew would be unrepeatable because of the imminent construction.

Here they are, along with (at the end) two images taken in September 2015.

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The first three images were taken on a Canon 5D Mark II with 16-35mm lens and the last two were taken on a Fuji X-T1 with 18-55 mm lens. These and other images of the Alan Turing Building are available at the Alamy image library.

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Fuji Fisheye Photography: XT-2 and Samyang 8mm

Shortly after acquiring my Fuji XT-2, four months ago, I bought the Samyang 8mm f2.8 UCM Fisheye II lens, of which I had seen good reviews. This manual focus lens is second generation, as denoted by the “II”, and is light and relatively inexpensive. In order to use it on the Fuji you need to set the camera to manual focus (using the dial with settings “M C S” at the front of the camera) and then go to the menu and set “shoot without lens” under Set Up (tool symbol)-Button/Dial Settings.

I am extremely impressed with this lens. It sharpness is better than I expected. It’s well built and comes with a permanent petal-shaped lens hood and a lens cap that cleverly clips onto the lens. The aperture ring is marked for f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, and f22, with clicks at the half stops in between. Focus hardly matters with a fisheye, since the depth of field is huge.

Fisheye lenses have the reputation that they are fun to use but that the results rapidly becoming tiring, so that they end up being used sparingly. It may be partly a function of where I have been taking photos recently, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how useful this lens is and how by careful framing, and perhaps a touch of cropping or occasional use of Lightroom’s transform perspective correction tool, images can be produced that are not obviously “fisheye”. A key point to bear in mind is that objects close to the centre are less distorted: avoid placing vertical or horizontal lines away from the centre if you want to de-emphasize the distortion. I have even taken family portraits (not shown here) that are quite acceptable.

The following shots were taken with the Fuji-Samyang combination at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and the Hyatt Regency Hotel, both in Atlanta (Georgia, USA), the Museum of Liverpool (UK), and the Alan Turing Building at the University of Manchester (UK). These images were shot in the range f2.8-f4 (the aperture is not recorded in the image metadata).

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Tips on Low Light Photography

Last October I attended a weekend workshop “At Low Light” run by Simon Buckley. Simon is author of the Not Quite Light project, in which he captures cities at dawn or dusk.

The workshop focused on the Bridgewater canal between Monton and Patricroft (a few miles from the centre of Manchester), with photo sessions at dawn and dusk. Simon offered expert advice on all aspects, including timing, composition, and exposure. The weather was favourable and I found the workshop was great fun. It inspired me to take some more low light shots in Ellesmere Park over the following days, while the good weather persisted.

I thought I would document a few things I learned—partly as a reminder to myself for the next time I try this type of photography.

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The Scene

The type of shots I am discussing here are ones where the natural light is weak because the sun has not risen, or has set, and needs augmenting with artificial light, typically from street lamps or headlights from passing vehicles.

Time of Shoot

Street lights need to be on and the sky should be fairly dark but not completely black. The optimal time is perhaps 20 mins before the street lights go off (morning) or 20 minutes after they turn on (evening).

Since it is always hard to know how the image will come out, in a morning shoot it is worth starting well before you think the light is good enough, and for an evening shoot continuing after you think the best light has gone. With my limited experience I have found that the resulting shots can be much better than I expected.

Exposure

Manual exposure mode is recommended, as you can’t expect the camera to meter accurately in low light scenes.

Shutter Speed

Exposures at ISO 100 can be of duration up to a couple of minutes, so you need a tripod and need to put the camera in bulb mode and use a cable release (since the exposure is beyond the available range of shutter speeds that can be selected). Alternatively, if the ISO is set to 400, exposures of less than 30 seconds are possible and shots can be taken in the usual way by setting the aperture and shutter speed (in manual mode).

I tried ISO 100 and ISO 400. While in principle ISO 100 will lead to cleaner files, I could not see any difference in my shots taken with a Canon 5D Mark II. The main advantage of shorter exposures is that you can take more shots in the limited time available. Longer exposures could have an advantage if you are capturing light trails or other moving lights, as you should be able to capture more of them in a given exposure.

Aperture

You will usually want shots that are sharp from front to back, that is, that have maximum depth of field, and so will want a fairly small aperture, albeit not one so small that it will cause diffraction. For my Canon gear this means apertures around f11-f16, but not smaller.

One effect of aperture is that it determines to what extent point light sources such as street lamps produce a starburst effect. Use smaller apertures for bigger stars.

Flare

When you are shooting with street lamps nearby there is a danger of lens flare. Using a lens hood should reduce, if not completely avoid, this problem. When I tried it I found that low light makes it hard to fit a lens hood and almost impossible to see if any part of the hood is visible in the shots. When I viewed the shots on the computer I found that part of the hood was visible in some shots.

Focusing

When you are working in low light the camera’s autofocus may struggle. Manual focus is an easy solution and arguably should be used as a matter of course: focus on something a third of the way into the frame to get maximal depth of field.

Processing

Given the effort involved in taking low light shots it’s essential to shoot in RAW mode and spend some time on the subsequent processing, taking care to balance the light and dark parts of the scene. There can be a huge difference between even a well exposed RAW file and the result of careful processing.

Beating Smartphones

An attraction of low light shooting is that it is something that cannot easily be done with a smartphone, so you are not likely to see many such shots on Instagram, etc. If you want to make your shots as unsmartphone-like as possible, you should

  • use long shutter speeds that allow light trails and movement of objects such as leaves and people,
  • use small apertures that create prominent starbursts around point light sources,
  • shoot in RAW mode, capture scenes with a wide dynamic range, and carefully process the RAW files.

Examples

Below I show some shots of the Bridgewater canal, taken during the workshop, as well as some of Bradford Road in Ellesmere Park, Eccles. For the latter shots I was fortunate that the autumn colour of the trees on the road was at its peak. For more inspiration see Simon Buckley’s Not Quite Light Instagram feed or Twitter feed.

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How to Pronounce “ISO”

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Fuji X-T1 ISO dial.

For many years film speed, and more recently the amplification level of of a digital sensor, has been described by the ISO number. I have always pronounced ISO as “eye-ess-oh” and this is how I have generally heard others pronounce it.

Recently, I noticed some people using the one-word pronunciation “eye-so”. One such person is Tony Northrup, who states in his book Stunning Digital Photography that this is the correct pronunciation, and explains why in this video.

ISO is the abbreviation for the International Organization for Standardization (so it is not an acronym, which would have to be “IOS”). This abbreviation was chosen because the translation of the title into different languages leads to different abbreviations, so one was declared official, with “ISO” justified on the ISO website as being “derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal”.

This choice of abbreviation has led to confusion. Looking at photography books on my shelves, I find that The Complete Photography Course (by M. Joseph and D. Saunders, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993), Digital Food Photography (L. Manna, Thomson, 2005), and The Art of Black and White Photography (J. Garrett, Amphoto, 1990) all state that ISO is an abbreviation for the “International Standards Organization”. This is what you would guess if you reverse engineer the abbreviation, but it is not correct.

But this is besides the point. There is no reason to pronounce ISO letter by letter. It is a pronounceable word, just like GIFF, NATO, and UNESCO. So “eye-so” it is.

Travelling with Camera Gear: A Billingham-Swissgear Combination

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The Billingham Hadley Pro, with the optional leather shoulder strap.

For many years I travelled with my camera gear in a Lowepro Mini Trekker and my laptop, books, and so on in a briefcase. More recently I have switched things around and carry my (now mirrorless) camera gear in a Billingham shoulder bag, with my laptop and other items in a general-purpose rucksack.

I usually travel with a rollaboard suitcase and wondered if there was some way of carrying this and the two other bags aboard a flight with me. Another question, for a short trip requiring a minimum of clothes, is how to travel with just one bag.

There is a way to do both these things. The trick is to combine the Billingham Hadley Pro and the Wenger Swissgear Synergy backpack.

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One of the great things about the Billingham Hadley Pro is that the green padded insert, which holds the camera and lenses, is removable: simply undo the press stud located at the front and the insert comes out. The insert can then be placed in the capacious main compartment of the Synergy, after putting the padded flap (the “stabilizing platform”) in the down position. The Hadley Pro insert fits comfortably and leaves plenty of space for items to be placed on top of it, which is best done after closing the insert’s lid to provide a firm foundation.

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The Billingham Hadley Pro insert.


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The Billingham insert in the main compartment of the Wenger Synergy.

The outer part of the Hadley Pro, which is soft and floppy without the insert, folds very flat and can be placed in the rollaboard, in which it takes very little space.

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Without the green insert.

I have travelled this way on several long-haul trips, with the Hadley Pro containing a Fuji XT-1 with 18-55 lens and an X100S, along with a 19 inch rollaboard holding the Hadley Pro shell, and am very pleased with how it worked. The Wenger Swissgear Synergy is an excellent backpack, with a laptop pocket and all the features I want. The only minor drawback is that with the Hadley Pro insert in place, the Synergy side pockets are severely restricted in what they can hold. No such problem arises if the narrower Hadley Small insert is used instead.

For the one bag secanario it is possible to travel with just the Synergy and the Hadley Pro insert (leaving the Hadley Pro outer part at home), working out of the Synergy.

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The Synergy zipped up, with the Hadley Pro insert inside it.

Overall, these are two excellent bags and they make a great combination.

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Refined Use of the Clarity Tool in Photoshop

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Fountain in Charleston, South Carolina. Fuji X-T1, 18-55 lens at 34mm, f5.6 at 1/850 sec, ISO 200. Clarity 80 and Blend If.

Lightroom users love applying the Clarity tool to apply extra mid-range contrast. It tends to give images more “pop”. A drawback of the tool is that you have no control over the effect other than through the amount applied or through local adjustments with the Graduated Filter and the Adjustment Brush. When Clarity is applied to the whole image at a moderate amount it is usually too strong in the shadows, giving a crunchy, HDR look. (Indeed Tony Northrup, in his Lightroom 6 book, notes that “the single most common post-processing problem I see is overdone clarity”.) This is where Photoshop comes into its own. In this post I describe how to apply Clarity in a more refined way that avoids the damaging the shadow regions of the image and I give a Photoshop Action that implements this approach.

With an image in Photoshop, do one of these two steps. (In what follows I will describe keypresses for Windows; for the Mac replace “Ctrl” by “Cmd”.)

  • If the image has only one layer then press Ctrl-j. This copies the base layer to a new layer.
  • If the image has more than one layer, go to the top layer and press Alt-Ctrl-Shift E. This creates a new layer that is the merged version of all those below it.

Rename the new layer “Clarity”. Now select Filter-Camera Raw Filter (or press Shift-Ctrl-A), move the Clarity slider to 100, and hit “OK”. (This assumes you are using Photoshop CC. If you are using an earlier version of Photoshop you will need to proceed as described at the end of this post.) The top layer now has Clarity applied at 100%, which is an effect we could equally well have achieved in Lightroom, and the result is almost certainly unacceptable.

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The right half of the black slider is in the process of being dragged all the way across to the right.

To fix the problem, double click to the right of the layer name “Clarity” to bring up the Layer Style dialog box. On the Underlying Layer bar in the Blend If box, Alt-click the black slider at the left in order to split it into two triangles (or more correctly bookends), and drag the right-hand triangle all the way across to the right end of the bar so that it meets the white triangles. This change causes the shadow areas of the clarity layer to be replaced by the shadow areas from the layers underneath: Clarity is faded from 0% in the blacks to 100% in the whites.

Fading Clarity in this way makes a huge difference and means that the effect can be applied at a higher opacity. For most purposes the Clarity layer is best set to around 60% opacity, but you should experiment to find which opacity works best for the image in question.

The image at the top of the page has had the Clarity layer applied at 80% (in order to show the effect clearly). Here is a crop of this image showing the original, the Clarity layer applied at 100% with no use of Blend If, and then the clarity layer applied at 100% with Blend If to fade the effect in the shadows. Look at the trees to see how Blend If produces a much more natural effect.

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Cropped original image.


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Clarity 100. The sky is improved but the trees are crunchy and have too much contrast.


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With Clarity 100 using Blend If. The trees are now more natural, while the sky and water retain the benefits of Clarity.

When should Clarity be applied? In Photoshop I apply it as a final step, since it works on a merged-down layer.

I’ve been using this technique for several years, having learned it from Guy Gowan. Guy uses clarity multiple times within his Process Action. Check out Guy’s website, which I strongly recommend.

Clarity isn’t useful on all images. It’s best avoided on portraits unless you want a gritty look.

Blending modes and Blend If are one of the main ways in which Photoshop is vastly more powerful than Lightroom. I will write more about the Lightroom-Photoshop comparison in a future post.

Action

Here is a Photoshop action called Clarity (it requires Photoshop CC). After running the action adjust the opacity of the Clarity layer to taste.

For Versions of Photoshop Before CC

If you have a version of Photoshop older than Photoshop CC then you will need to apply Clarity as follows.

  • From Photoshop, save the file as a jpeg (this will flatten the file) anywhere (e.g., on the desktop), say as temp.jpg.
  • Choose File-Open As, choose temp.jpg, and select file type Camera Raw. This opens temp.jpg in Camera Raw.
  • Set Clarity to 100 and hit Open Image.
  • The image with Clarity applied is now a separate document in Photoshop. Press Ctrl-A (select all), Ctrl-X (cut), Ctrl-W (close document), select the original image, then press Ctrl-V to paste the image in as a layer at the top of the stack. Rename this “Clarity” and continue as before. Delete the now unwanted temp.jpg document.