Focus on APS-C sensor

Be careful what you wish for, it might come out-of-focus

Being a long-time user of smaller-than-35mm cameras and enjoying their sharp and all-in-focus images in street photography, my early experiences –more accurately put, re-encounter, considering film era- with 35 mm format — was initially difficult. Shots were easily got out of focus. Lack of any visual indications (i.e. split screen or micro prism) in modern digital cameras added to the problem [1]. I was being at the mercy of cameras autofocus system unless I use the more accurate, but usually difficult-to-use live view.

Dialogue - 1/80 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 140 - 105mm - APS-C
Dialogue — 180 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 140 — 105mm — APS‑C

The larger area of 35mm format sensor – in comparison to smaller formats- increases the light capturing ability and improves the low light performance. [2] Larger pixels ‑if the sensor pixel density kept at reasonable levels- helps improve dynamic range. Also, rendition of out-of-focus areas can be softer using smaller f‑number [3] These create enough motives to try to go up the ladder of sensor sizes to achieve better picture quality and creative control. But there’s a downside to this. As you opt for larger sensor sizes, controlling the focus and depth of field becomes more difficult. A tiny misplacement in focus point translates to visible softness. F‑numbers considered safe in a Micro Four Thirds or APS‑C formats, can have very shallow in-focus depth in 35mm. Get close to f/1.4 or smaller f‑numbers and the in-focus plane becomes so thin that focusing accidentally on an eyelash can make subjects’ eye look slightly blurry.

Lunch - 1/320 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 100 - 200mm - APS-C
Lunch — 1320 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 100 — 200mm — APS‑C

Let’s look at an example: A typical APS‑C Nikon camera with its kit lens at 18mm and f/3.6 focusing on a subject 3 meters away will have ~1.2 m in front and ~5.7 m behind of the subject in focus. That’s ~6.9m of in-focus depth, which leaves a very good safe margin in case several non-linear subjects needed to be in focus at the same time, for example, people standing in a U‑shaped group.

Doing the same calculations with a full-frame Nikon with same f‑number and angle of view [4] and the total in-focus depth reduces to ~3.2 m. Now you have less than a meter in front and about 2 meters behind the focus point in focus.

In some circumstances, the unforgiving nature of 35mm in comparison to smaller formats eliminates most of the probable advantages for choosing it in the first place. For keeping the subject in focus you need to choose a smaller f‑number, losing light gathering advantage you had to some extent. You might need to bring more light into the scene to compensate and hence complicate the process. If you do all these and manage to keep your focus on the creative aspect of the work at the same time, you get better results than a smaller format. [5]

Jerrabomberra wetlands - 1/250 sec @ f/5.5, ISO 100- 18mm - APS-C
Jerrabomberra wetlands — 1250 sec @ f/5.5, ISO 100- 18mm — APS‑C

That’s why I envy the owners of latest APS‑C cameras. If you begin purchasing a system nowadays, there’s a real opportunity to be very happy with APS‑C and Micro Four Third systems nowadays. Everything is achievable with them except very low-light (like music photography in bars), For monochrome, photojournalistic work they are adequate and you enjoy a smaller system within budget. Camera’s are fast and have deep buffers, autofocus is accurate and minor mistakes in choosing the aperture are forgiven. For people like me, who really need 35mm (and larger) for certain type of jobs, it’s just more shooting discipline, awareness about the in-focus range and refusing the temptation of getting carried away by the allure of wider apertures.

After all, there’s so much wisdom in Arthur Fellig’s famous quote, when asked about his technique: “f/8 and be there”. [6]

1/200 sec @ f/7.1, ISO 100 - 200mm - APS-C
1200 sec @ f/7.1, ISO 100 — 200mm — APS‑C


[1] Focusing screens for digital cameras are too soft for manual focus and lack micro prisms and split screens, due to different design goals.

[2] With a physical limit on the number of photons that a sensor can receive per exposure, each sensor size receives and records a finite number of photons per area. Obviously, the actual number of photons that their values are recorded with precision is less than the maximum theoretical limit, but even if theoretically ideal sensing device was achievable, able of recording 100 percent of photons it receives, still the data being sampled cannot exceed the total number of photons. So here’s where the size of the surface area becomes the key factor in sampling more photons in the same exposure timeframe and having more image information to work on.

[3] F‑number is the ratio of the lens’s focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil. F‑number –being a ratio- is equal among cameras with difference sensor sizes, but it doesn’t mean physical aperture size and light gathering capability with the same f‑number is equal among various formats.

[4] 18 mm in APS‑C is approximately equivalent to 27 – 28 mm in 35mm format, depending on the manufacturer’s APS‑C sensor size.

[5] I understand why Fujifilm and Four-Third Consortium chose to build their system on a smaller format. They correctly anticipated that the technology will progress to the level that quality will be acceptable under most conditions and eventually will surpass and cover all typical shooting scenarios. Because they were early movers, the investment of the Four-Third standard consortium took a long time to show a positive return. Early camera’s low-light performance was subpar and contrast-detect AF was less capable than phase-detect systems used in DSLRs. Later, with better sensors, on-sensor phase detection, and better contrast-detect systems the gap narrowed. And they are not still 100 percent there. For Fujifilm however, the return of the benefits of this approach bears the fruit faster, because they have chosen a format only one step (and stop) behind the 35mm. Just look at the recent photo samples of the X‑T2.

[6] Speed Graphics — the cameras used by Arthur Fellig at the time were 4×5 inch and the optimal aperture for them were f/16. I don’t know why he quoted f/8 as the optimal aperture.

Canberra Swing Katz - Canberra City Band Floriade 2016

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016 — photoshoot notes


Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to photograph Canberra city band’s performance in Floriade 2016.

CCB is one of Australia’s oldest community concert bands, serving the ACT community for over 90 years and recently ‑among many other accolades — won the New South Wales A Grade Concert Band Championship 2016, Australian National Eisteddfod Champions 2009 – 2016.Here are my technical notes of photographing the performance.

Here are my technical notes of photographing the performance.

The problem with the scene’s dynamic range

Music director face is darker in than the mid-tone in background. Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Music director’s face is darker in than the mid-tone in the background. Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Canberra City Band performance photography in Floriade 2016 was amazing and difficult at the same time. In an ordinary sunlit midday, there’s around one stop of difference in light between the surroundings and the stage 88 itself. So you have to either overexpose the backgrounds or take an underexposed shot and pull one stop of details from shadows, which I dislike. Pulling details from shadows in landscape photography and inanimate objects is one thing, and doing the same on the delicate human skin is another, and usually leads to unpleasant results, unless you are looking at a particular effect.
Now, the performance day was dark and rainy, and I had around 3.5 stops of difference between mid-tones outside and inside the stage. So, while having the cloudy sky as a slightly underpowered softbox helped to take shots from people under the tent, the difference with the surrounding made the job rather difficult. But after all, I don’t want to pretend that I took pictures on a sunny day, so let the things be true to themselves. The following picture is a good example of the situation that I had:

Musician's face is at least 3½ stop darker than the sky in the RAW capture. No flash used.
Musician’s face is at least 3½ stop darker than the sky in the RAW capture. No flash.

They say don’t do black and white just for the aesthetics.…

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

I disagree with that. I love the pure black and white photography (as the joy of seeing the world black and white and taking pictures of that). But sometimes, converting a colour photo into black and white can remove distractions. Maybe it’s the only technique that ‑unlike all other post processing techniques-  can turn an ordinary picture into a something worthy of keeping.

First steps in dance photography

Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

From my past experience in dance photography, when you haven’t been to rehearsals, you will get constantly surprised by the moves and your subjects hands and feet will be out of the frame, ruining otherwise great shots. So wide-angle, good shots need anticipation that either needs knowledge about particular moves of the dance you are photographing or simply having the chance to attend rehearsals.

When you have none of the above, I think one of the best techniques is stepping back and zooming in. This way, you can anticipate the movements and keep the dancers within the frame without knowing their next moves.


Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

I’ve chosen to bring a Canon 60D and 24 – 105L for dance shots (Best thing I had access too) and it was useful because of spot-on and fast autofocus and good frame rate. I also liked the film-like black and white renderings of the lens and camera combination. These days any seemingly notable photography results (or even cheesy ones) are attributed as being “film-like”. But by film-like, I just mean a slow and smooth transition to highlights, which was very pleasant in the case of Canon 60D. The negative part was the shallow camera buffer of 16 images in RAW. If I have to do photography again with the same configuration, I would certainly turn off burst shooting or at least put it on slow burst mode, not being out of memory in the midst of photography.

For complete gallery, please visit the following gallery in Flickr:

Canberra City Band - Floriade 2016

The Parlour Social - Jazz Photography

The Parlour Social at Smith’s Alternative — Jazz Photography

I had the opportunity to photograph The Parlour Social, an amazing Canberra-based traditional jazz band. The most interesting part of this particular jazz photography was having the chance to photograph piano playing, which a rarity for me. However, the stage was so small and the Café so crowded which moving behind the piano or changing position as I liked was impossible, so I used a limited set of locations which I could hide and be less of a distraction and photograph. Canon 5D MKII shutter sound was at the threshold of being of noticeable, which was something new to me because my jazz photography experience with Canon 5D is mostly limited to big bands which are loud enough for suppressing the loudest shutter sounds. Perhaps a camera with a quieter shutter sound or an electronic shutter is more suitable for these environments. The light was adequate most of the time, so there was no focusing problem and use of extreme ISO levels, which is common in jazz photography.

On the technical side, this event coincided with the introduction of Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which has amazing specs and looks like a very balanced camera just like it’s predecessors. It’s amazing that even the old 5D MKII is so good that having the minimum light and paired with the right L lenses, there’s very little left to be desired technically. Being a Nikon user, I personally really like to try the 30 megapixels sensor and the more advanced AF system in the reliable and ergonomic chassis of 5D, provided that all this be paired with a near silent shutter.

Thanks to Robbie Hugh Mann of The Parlour Social,  Tim Benson and Smith’s Alternative for help making this to happen.
The Parlour Social at Smith's alternative - Contact Sheet

Soft proofing for offset printing in Lightroom and Photoshop

Soft proofing for offset printing in Lightroom and Photoshop

Post processing photos for offset printing can be a very difficult task, especially when maintaining accurate and pleasing skin tones is a concern.

First, a note of warning

Unfortunately, it seems that Adobe temporarily turned off all print (non-RGB) proofing profiles from Lightroom, apparently due to software issues. (Reading software version history, I was able to find when this feature has been added to Lightroom but not when it’s been officially pulled) However, you can use the proofing tools in Photoshop until ‑hopefully- a fix arrives for Lightroom. So all is written here is basically true for Photoshop.

Softproofing workflow in Lightroom

My workflow in Lightroom/Photoshop, consist of setting the CMYK output intent same as what my print house uses, which in my case usually is Coated FOGRA39 (ISO 12647 – 2:2004), and soft proof using this profile. I also enable “Simulate paper & ink” option so I can see how much my deep shadows and highlights will be negatively affected in print, and then I can adjust the shoulders of the image histogram to regain some of that lost contrast. Because it’s easy to make the mid tones too dark, I usually drag the slider separating shadows and darks to the left, so I can burn only the darkest shades, without affecting darks. From my own personal experience, when an artwork has some deep black and strong highlights in some areas, it looks contrasty, without actually creating a high contrast photo with harsh mid tones in areas you might not like to have, like skin tones)The result on screen and with soft proofing turned off will look like a contrasty image with lots of over exposure in highlights and no detail in shadows, while in offset printing process ‑which contrast is less- it will look more natural. This is not a very difficult workflow for landscapes, architecture, and still life photography, but when it comes to human face, work can be more complex due to subtle colour shifts in skin tones. Also, increasing contrast makes harsher skin tones and emphasises skin imperfections. That’s why I usually increase exposure and decrease contrast and red hues in faces in lightroom, and do the final adjustments later in Photoshop , to negate the effect of adjusting the scene for offset printing output. I’m sure there are more advanced and scientific workflows out there to create more accurate and controlled output. As I’m exploring this subject and studying more, I will post about it later.

Softproofing inkjet printers, and photo print store’s dye-sublimation printers

You can also use soft-proofing to simulate your output for inkjet photo and dye-sublimation printers. I contacted  Ted’s camera store in Canberra, Australia where I live, and the friendly and professional personnel provided me with their dye-sublimation printer profiles. Taking it little further, I even studied the possibility of finding the printer profiles for Kodak kiosks for fun, but due to variations in models in each store found it more difficult.

Meditative music of John Burgess electronic quartet - Merimbula Jazz Festival 2016

Meditative music of John Burgess electronic quartet — Merimbula Jazz Festival 2016

I was already sure that John’s performance would be an interesting photography subject as well as a chance to listen to a different kind of music in this year’s Merimbula Jazz Festival. The single-track performance, a meditative journey through various soundscapes being played in a semi-dark room and among an audience of mostly professional musicians was a genuine musical experience. I tried to use the harsh, unidirectional light, the reflections of light on steel and chrome musical equipment and all the cables and microphones to my advantage and do what I really like with them, and really like the results. Photos are taken with my inharmonious trio of lenses, Sigma 70 – 200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM, Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 18 – 105mm f/3.5 – 5.6G ED VR and  Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G  Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G.

B2B Magazine issue 116

B2B Magazine issue June 2016 is out

Photography for this issue’s cover story is done by fantastic Canberra photographer Andrew Sikorski (AIPP). Visit his website Life in Canberra and you will see there’s not a photo in it which one can’t learn some compositional lesson from it.

Also, we have two aerial shots from Canberra by Tim our editor which are fantastic and show how our aging Canon 5D Mark II and it’s wide angle L lens are capable of producing sharp and detailed landscapes. Some de-hazing is done using lightroom which saturated colours a bit, albeit in a good way. I think shooting a landscape of Canberra is open to all sort of beautiful post processing interpretations and we just had to choose one of those that fit’s the context and looked best in print:

Canberra aerial shot by Tim Benson
Photo by Tim Benson — Canon 5D Mark II, 40mm, 𝑓/8.0, 1/125sec — Canon EF 17 – 40mm 𝑓/4 L USM

Here are some pages that I like their design more:

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Here’s the complete magazine to read: