Zor.com, an affordable printing company based in Belgium, kindly offered to send a print my way for the purpose of reviewing. I chose to get a print that I've previously ordered from other 'cheap' printing companies so that I could see the difference and compare Zor.com directly to a company that I admire for their quality and price. I received the prints about a week after ordering and overall I am impressed with the quality given the incredible price of printing... and it really is cheap!
As I said before, Zor.com are based in Belgium and whilst they offer only 3 print types (aluminium, plexiglass and PVC), they come at very low prices and good quality. The item that I am reviewing is a 70x35cm ‘alu-dibond’ photograph of a scene I photographed in Costa Rica. Zor.com will print up to 120x80cm and the cost range is as follows: a 20x30cm print is a mere 3.99EUR (£3.50~) and 2.99EUR on PVC, whilst their largest size on their most expensive material is 77.99EUR(£70~), an absolute bargain... but does the bargain come at a cost?
Print Price and Quality
As I said before I ordered this particular image so that I could place it in direct competition with another company, Saal Digital. The landscape image I've used has a good range from white to black and most of the scene is full of rich and contrasty shades of green. It's not a particularly challenging image to print, but it does give an idea of how the whitest white and the blackest black come across on this material at this price. Speaking of price, this print cost me £15.63! For the same print I'd be paying £49.95 at Saal Digital. This is absolutely incredible, I've not found better prices online, personally. Comment below if you know of somewhere cheaper and can verify that they make good quality prints.
It’s hard to portray the quality of a printed photograph in an image, but with this alu-dibond print I was impressed, very impressed, as for the price I was expecting there to be an immediate flaw (at least to my eye), but no... The print is punchy and colourful, sharp and the highlights and shadows are well controlled. Viewing up close there seems to be a slight amount of noise/grain in the image that I've not noticed in Saal Digital's version - and to clarify I used the exact same file for both companies. From an ordinary viewing distance there is no issue, the colours are punchy and the image looks great, if anything the colours are a little too punchy. It's not a problem in any way, but I believe the Saal Digital print to be a closer match to the original file and the Zor.com print to be slightly more saturated. I've placed two galleries of images below for you to inspect the detailed differences between Zor.com and Saal Digital.
Overall, Zor.com are (for the price) one of the best printing companies I've used. I'd like to see Zor.com offer more mounting options, they do offer 'hassle free' mountain strips at a small extra cost, but I would prefer a rail system to come already attached. Maybe this is something they can expand into in the future, but as soon as I got my print from Saal Digital it was ready to hang on the wall, this wasn't the case with Zor.com.
If a client of mine wants a large scale print and is paying hundreds for it, then I would be using the highest quality printer available, based in the UK for quicker turnaround times; however, I will be using Zor.com in the future for the more budget conscious buying options.
Thanks for reading this review, if you have any opinions about the prints or have other printing companies that you think rival either Zor.com or Saal Digital on price and quality then feel free to comment below! If you're interested in purchasing from Zor.com then follow these links: zor.com/en/ or https://zor.com/en/photo-on-aluminium-dibond.html.
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I want to show how I go from an initial idea to a final image; therefore, this post is not going to delve into editing processes or specific compositing techniques and stick to a step-by-step guide, that you may be able to follow yourself and create something intriguing. As a disclaimer of sorts, this is not the only way to create composite ideas, it's likely not even the best way, but it is the way I use and it works for what I do - so I hope that it can be of some use to you.
For this process I'm going to need an example, the third image in my recent project By Process of Imagination will work just fine!
Step 1 - Find Inspiration
Yes of course, the first step is to work out what you want to create. I imagine you are reading this because you either already have a completely original concept that you want to bring to life, or you want to try your hand and compositing and want to know where to start. If you're the latter of those two categories then there are a few places to start:
- Have you had any interesting dreams that you could form into one photographic scene?
- An idea or concept that you wish to illustrate.
The best way to get started is to hit Google and start researching different effects and looks. A simple search for 'Composite Photography Effects' can return thousands of ideas that you can pull apart and fit into a completely different photograph idea. If you can't think of something wholly original, then it's best to find inspiration from other places but try and make the overall image something unique to your style.
My inspiration for a number of things in this project was Disney Pixar's 2001 'Monsters, Inc'. In particular for this image, there's a scene in which Mike and Sulley are flying around a warehouse of doors, each of which goes to another place (similar to the idea that runs throughout my project). I also knew that I wanted it to be laid out in a form that reminds me of prison cells (highly structured and routine).
Step 2 - Draw up a Plan
Don't worry you don't have to be master artist and draw up a fully detailed sketch, I can personally draw about as well as I can fly, but for this image in particular there was no need to touch pencil to paper at all. For this image I drew the plan inside Photoshop and then replaced the parts as they were photographed; however, if your image is highly complicated (not so many straight lines and simply structures) and you really cannot draw then you can skip straight to Step 3.
To show you how detailed they really need to be (and prove my lack of drawing capabilities) I thought I'd include a sketch for an idea that I have not made yet. The simplicity of the sketch doesn't matter so much, its more that you get an idea for what you would like to include and where you would like to place objects within the scene once you have captured them.
Step 3 - Make a List
Time to find out everything you need to photograph, this stage is good because it can also give you a good estimate of the time frame that it'll take you to finish. If you came to this stage by skipping Step 2 then you're going to need to be able to picture the scene you wish to create in as much detail as possible in order to make the list. Here's what I needed for the main picture:
- 16 doors (I ended up using 10).
- 4 images of the subject; 2 walking, 1 crouching and 1 climbing.
- 4 types of wall for backgrounds.
- Concrete material for the ledges.
- Light bulbs.
Here's a list of the things I will need to photograph in order to make the as-of-yet incomplete sketch above:
- Subject image from behind.
- A hill with a small treeline (a small cluster of trees may compliment the image just as well as one tree would).
- A pathway through grass.
- A doorway with a light behind it.
- 3 starry night images to pick and choose aspects from.
- 1 milky way image.
- 2 earth/mud pattern images to create the planets from.
Coming in Part 2...
In the next instalment of this blog series I will cover how you should photograph the parts in order for them to fit well into a scene and how important lighting is in making a realistic composite.
Thank you for reading part 1 and I hope to see you back here for part 2. To get a notification when the post is live, head on over to my social media pages and follow me!
Saal-Digital have given me the opportunity to order and review some of their wall art and I've just received an Alu-Dibond print through the post! I have recently reviewed one of Saal-Digital's photobook and so I won't be covering the ordering process as you can read the other review where I cover it in detail: https://goo.gl/sfOJZJ.
Overall, the print is sharp, has punchy colours, a clean finish and is at a very fair price, but carry on reading to find out more in-depth information about the product.
I've wanted to try printing on aluminium for a while now and when the opportunity came up to have an extremely discounted print in exchange for a review, I just couldn't turn it down!
So, Alu Dibond is a combination of two thin aluminium sheets with a plastic layer in between, doing this means a lower cost and weight and higher durability than if it were simply a large sheet of metal. I chose to print at 70x35cm - a custom size that saved about £10 by dropping the width by 5cm from their standard 40cm width - the total cost was £65 exc. delivery. This is a very middle of the road cost, you wouldn't expect the best product on the market at this price, but at the same time there is no drastic problem with the print that would lead me to think it was cheap.
You are given four mounting options when you order; no mount, standard, subframe or standoff mounts. I chose the subframe option as I have nails on my wall which I can then hang the print off with no extra effort on my part. There is another benefit to the aluminium frame, it stands the print off the wall more than the standard mount does and, although not as far as the standoff mount option, it is £20 cheaper. I placed it on the floor so that you can see the depth to the shadow produced with this mount. I had to do it on the floor as the wall that I have the print mounted on is opposite a window and so there is no shadow.
Five days after I paid I received the package in the post and was happy with level of packaging. It came wrapped in two layers of plastic sheeting, thick cardboard over the printed side of aluminium and then an outer cardboard box. There is no realistic way that this could have bent or been scratched in the post.
Okay, so now on to the important stuff and I'd like to start by saying that I am really impressed! The print is sharp and the colours are vivid and true to my edit. Saal-Digital have the option to download the ICC profile of their printers in order to see how your print will come out (assuming that your monitor is accurate). If you have read my review of the Photobook then you'll know that there was some problems with the printing; the contrast and artifacts on edges of high contrast. These problems were completely non existent in this print, the contrast is just right and shows good detail in the shadows whilst the highlight areas are controlled well.
The finish on the print is matte and unfortunately there is no way around this. This is very surprising as from most reviews I have seen (from other printers) it is the glossy finish of aluminium prints that makes them so special, therefore it seems strange for Saal-Digital to not offer it. Saal-Digital do have another print option called 'Alu Dibond butlerfinish' and from what I can work out it is a brushed aluminium finish - but I'm not quite sure as the information that they give about the finish is very limited. As for this image specifically, the matte finish works very well. When you print an image you want the print to not only be a way of showing a photograph, but to be an extension of the scene - to fit the 'character' of the scene. This image has a lot of small details, there are hundreds of thousands of small leaves throughout the picture and to me the small bumps from the matter finish seem to accentuate this. The other benefit to matte is the lack of reflections, I have this print mounted opposite a window and so a glossy finish would have made it virtually unusable (for my situation).
Below is a gallery of close up shots from around the print:
I wouldn't hesitate to use Saal-Digital again for an Alu-Dibond print, unless of course you wanted a glossy finish in which case you'll need to find another printer which offers the finish. The aluminium subframe option seems to be the best in my opinion and the matte finish is going to be useful if you have a lot of light sources in the room you wish to display your print in as it reduces reflections. However, as high quality as this print is, it does lack the punch that you expect from a metal print when you take away the glossy finish. If you haven't seen a glossy metal print in reality then you won't be able to appreciate quite how much 'pop' it can give an image.
Thank you for reading this review, if you're interested in purchasing from Saal-Digital then follow this link: https://goo.gl/qj6pn7. To stay up to date with any blogs and reviews that I am bringing out please see my social media links below!
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Saal-Digital is a German company, promising high-quality photo products with quick delivery (their words, not mine). They offer a good amount of services at very reasonable prices and although I am specifically reviewing 19.3 x 19.3cm Photobook, I'll also be looking at the services that the company offers for photographers.
I would recommend Saal-Digital to anyone compiling a photobook for a friend or family member, maybe to remember a birthday or holiday! The paper is durable and the prints look lovely, although with slightly less contrast than expected. If you're like me and would like a small/portable and cheap portfolio of your favourite work, then I'd say that this is a good option, but there are companies which would allow more paper options and I'd consider those companies to really add another level to your photobook. The paper that you choose to print on should be customised to the image/set that you are printing, certain images suit certain papers better than others. The paper options you are given by Saal-Digital are 'glossy and 'matte' but in reality the 'matte' option is 'lustre' paper.
I'd recommend the leatherette feature for hardcover books as it adds a professional feel with none of the cost. Saal-Digital themselves were responsive the questions and made the whole process quick and simple. Delivery from Germany (their printing HQ) cost £4.95 and takes 4-5 days to arrive.
Now let's delve into the details and see whether Saal-Digital can make a product that you'll be proud to show off!
Here is what I'll be covering:
- Services Offered
- Product Design Software
- Product Quality
- Image and Text Print Quality
- Further Thoughts and Recommendations
** For the purpose of full clarity, this Photobook was paid for, in majority, by Saal-Digital; however, this will not affect the outcome of the review.
When you first arrive on the Saal-Digital website you get a choice of products to see more information about. These are: Photobooks, Photos, Wall Decor, Greetings Cards, Fine Art Print, Poster Print, Photo Booklets and Calendars. Once you follow the 'Photobooks' link, they start to feed you information about the product, but there is no option to 'buy' or 'create'. This is because Saal-Digital have two options for creating your photobook; you can either download their own software or prepare your book in a program such as inDesign and then upload the file thought the 'Professional Zone' at the top of the website. I personally chose to use their software, just so that I could review this too.
Now, in terms of the actual photobook they say that they will supply a book with; no logo (barcode removable), lay-flat binding, flexible page count, a quick production time and 'absolute colorfast' (long lasting print quality).
At the time that I am writing these first two sections, I have designed the book and sent it off to print but have not yet received the product. I have chosen to do it this way so that there is no bias toward my review of their product design software - as their would be if the product was really good (or bad).
Product Design Software
I won't bore you with the setup of the program, it's as simple as any other and the file size makes for a quick download and setup. Jumping straight into the design, the first stage is to choose the settings for the book; these options are cover, cover finish, cover padding, spread finish, barcode on/off, gift box option, page count. I personally chose leather saphire black, unpadded, matte, without barcode and no gift box - this amounts to a total of £44.95 incl. VAT excl. shipping costs.
Now we get to the interesting part, adding elements to the book and everything that that entails. Overall I was happy with the software, it was simple and easy to use with quick results, but there were a few issues which I'll now cover in a little more detail.
There were times when I could have done with more information about the the product; for example, I couldn't find out whether the very first (and last) page of the book were a different paper type than the photographic pages in between - I had to email them to find this out and the answer was yes, the paper on the inside covers is photographic paper. Another was the exact paper type that they were using, you have the option for either 'matte' or 'glossy', but nothing about the paper stock/manufacturer - again, an email sorted this out. I don't expect that there would be a variety of paper options for a cheap(ish) photobook, but I think that they should shed some more information about the paper that is being used. There was no information about how they would print text on the front, which would normally be okay, however I chose a leather cover, so I don't know whether it would have been ink or embossed - either way, I wanted a plain cover so it didn't affect me.
They were quite informative about most other things though, such as the bleed and they also tell you what quality your print will be in regards to its resolution which is handy if you are unaware of the relationship between print quality and resolution.
Once again, I was pleased with Saal-Digital on this front. The UI is slightly clunky/old fashioned looking, but everything seems very natural to use. The program lets you use all the keyboard shortcuts that you usually would in MS Word or some similar program, as well as that you have options for editing your images inside the program (although I wouldn't recommend it). You also have basic layout options (such as alignment) for the text/image boxes down the right-hand side.
The first problem that I found was the grid that you can toggle on/off and change the size between the grid lines. Even though you can customise the grid, I didn't find a way to lock the images to that grid, and the grid was even throughout the page, this meant that I couldn't get the image and equal distance from each edge - you can see this below:
Possibly the biggest reason to use your own design software rather than Saal-Digital's program would be the extremely limited text options. They have a few fonts and alignment options, but other than that, you can't unleash your inner master typographer. For this reason the text that I used was created in Photoshop and put into the photobook as an image.
This stage was fairly simple, the software has the option to add the photobook to your basket. A quick payment process is then required. Once this is done, the file is uploaded and you receive a completion notice. And then you wait (4-5 days), I sent the file off on a Sunday and so imagine that the soonest it'll arrive is next Friday, but Monday or Tuesday would be more likely.
Tracking Production and Shipping
After you order is placed, you have the option to view how far your package is through the production and delivery process, through Saal-Digital's website. You then have the further option for the page to take you to DHL's tracking page, where it will automatically show you the information for your specific package. It is very nice not to have to enter you package's tracking number manually.
Overall Product Quality
For the price I am impressed with the overall product; the use of good materials is obvious from the get-go. I have already said a small amount of my impressions at the top of this review, therefore I'm going to jump straight the details.
A definite strong point of this photobook is the lovely finish of the leatherette hardcover. All the edges/corners are well folded and pressed to provide a professional look, that I wouldn't be worried about showing any client. I chose to leave mine blank, partly because I am a fan of the simplicity, but also because there was no information about how they would print onto the leatherette and I didn't want to risk it looking tacky. The book is also not very heavy, I was definitely expecting it to be heavier (and thicker) before it arrived and was surprised by the packaging that it came in (bubble wrapped inside a large card envelope), but after handling it for a while I am really liking the lightweight and small book size.
My first problem that I noticed as soon as I opened the book was that the paper is 'lustre' and not 'matte' as described. Now, to the average consumer of this form of photobook this would possibly go unnoticed and if it were noticed it would not be a problem. Companies often use lustre as it provides a middle ground with the colour reproduction of glossy and the texture of matte; but I specifically asked for matte. I wanted matte because having a gloss (or semi-gloss) finish will leave you with fingerprints after you've handled the book. I suppose that because the paper has this finish you can clean it easily - which, if you are gifting this book to somebody who has young children, could be a positive.
The paper is quite heavy (368gsm total) because it is two sheets of photographic paper stuck back to back (for obvious reasons). I contacted Saal-Digital and they have told me that they use Fujifilm Crystal Archive Album paper, whether this is a paper you like or dislike is purely down to whether you have experienced it in the past. I would describe it as 'plastic-like' and durable with a grippy feel (due to the mix of a slight gloss a matte texture). As promised by Saal-Digital this paper is guaranteed to hold its colour for 75 years, which I guess can only be a positive.
Impressive! Compared with the other prints of the same images the colours are extremely similar and, in some cases, preferable... However, there is noticeably less depth to the blacks than I was expecting. Again, in some images this is okay and I am not a fan of heavy contrast, however it means that all of the images are not quite as I edited them. The white areas seemed to print fine, with little to no obvious gradation as the hues got brighter.
The pages do exactly what it says on the tin, they lay flat! It may take a little while for the binding to loosen up and allow them to lay flat as soon as you open the book, but at the moment they only need a little time before they settle to being flat. This is an extremely useful thing for a small photobook; this book is about the same height/width as my hand and so having images spread across both pages makes them much easier to see.
This was the downfall of the book for me - and yet it only affected a couple of images (and the text, but I'll cover the images first). I knew that there were a couple of images that I put in to deliberately test the print quality and one of these was a black-and-white image of a Turkey Vulture perched on a tree - see below.
The image on the left looks perfectly fine from an arms view distance, however it has some very harsh artifacts on edges of heavy contrast (like dark grey/black on white). I imagine this is down to the process of compressing the design file before printing and I will stress that it really is only a problem on some images. Below I have placed a close up image of the print on the left and the original digital file on the right.
It's hard to convey the actual colours of the print by photographing it and so I'll say that I'm very happy with how the black-and-white printed, it was just the right amount of contrast for what I wanted and the only problem is the artifacts along the edges of the branches. Now, I said it was a couple of images that were affected and so here is another image that had the same problem - albeit less pronounced throughout the whole image, it's quite strong underneath the neck of one of the swans.
Text was also affected by this problem (which I could only describe as a 'dark halo'), but it's much less of a problem because it just looks like the characters have a slight border to them. Still, I have placed an image below to show you the extent of the problem.
Further Thoughts and Recommendations
I would say that I've been quite harsh so far, as overall I rate this product highly for its price-range. The printing is high quality (although watch out for edges of harsh contrast) and the colours are strong, whilst the contrast is slightly lower than prints from other photo-labs.
If this is a present for a family member or friend and you are planning on filling it with old family photographs and iPhone pictures then I'm sure this will suit all your needs and the recipient would be extremely happy! If you are an amateur (or newly professional) photographer who has just done a portrait shoot or covered an event and would like to give the client a photobook to remember the occasion, then I'd would consider a photobook from Saal-Digital. However, please realise that it is far from the only option out there and your business will be judged on the final products that you give to the client, maybe you could look for a company which would allow you to choose the paper type. The option to change the paper type would have changed the pricing but would have drastically changed the overall quality of this book.
My personal reason for buying this book was to use it as a short-but-sweet portfolio of some of my favourite work. If somebody asks to see some of my work, I won't have to send them to my website - where their screen quality will affect the images - I can instead show them a physical version of my portfolio.
Saal-Digital's customer service throughout the process was good, albeit a little slow. It took them 2-3 days on average to reply to an email and 1 day to reply to a Facebook message. Once they did reply to the questions they were very helpful and informative, so 4/5 stars on that front.
Overall, there were certain problems which turned out of be acceptable; the artifacts on the text and the lack of contrast in the images. There were problems which can't be overlooked; the artifacts on the images and the paper being 'lustre' rather than 'matte'. And there were definite positive points to the book; the price, the size and weight, the lovely colour reproduction, the lay-flat pages and the leatherette hardback cover. If I needed to score it out of 10 it'd be a 7!
If you're interested in designing a photobook through Saal-Digital then please follow this link to their website: http://www.saal-digital.co.uk/.
Thank you for reading my review and I hope that it can be of some help! Feel free to jump into the comments with any questions!
This short film is about Cloudbridge Nature Reserve, the work that the FXpedition team and the reserve researchers were completing and the wildlife that the newly restored cloud forest is home to.
Whilst in Costa Rica over the summer I was filming the landscapes and wildlife in the time between our survey work. The cloud forests were absolutely stunning and for a place which has been replanted from an ecologically disastrous era of farming, it's extremely impressive. Their efforts have shifted since the success of their reforesting project and whilst the reforesting is still progressing, the team at Cloudbridge are now moving their focus to education. "What we want to see in the future, is having more student groups coming to Cloudbridge - to really give them the chance to learn more about the wildlife that we have here in Costa Rica, but also about reforestation and the importance of the forests. If we can get through to the next generation, people in High Schools, people in Universities, then that will give them a knowledge set with which they will want to look after the forest in years to come." - Frank Spooner, reserve manager.
If you would like to donate to Cloudbridge and aid in their reforestation program, then please follow this link: www.cloudbridge.org/donate/.
If you'd like to help the next FXpedition team reach Cloudbridge reserve then head over to the Expedition Cloudbridge Facebook page and there will be ways to help out over there!
Leaving your own artistic decisions to the side, there are certain steps that most often need be taken when editing any RAW image. In this post I'll be breaking down the steps that I normally take when editing photographs of birds. I personally use Adobe Photoshop and CameraRaw to edit, however you can apply any methods over in Lightroom too.
The steps I'll be covering are:
1 - Image Corrections
2 - White Balance
3 - Exposure
4 - Shadow/Highlight
5 - Contrast and Colour Enhancement
6 - Sharpening
7 - Noise Reduction
Step 1 - Image Corrections
The first thing to do when opening any image is to head over to image corrections and make sure that you enable 'Profile Corrections' and 'Remove Chromatic Aberration'. The profile corrections will acknowledge the lens you used, find the relevant information about the barrel distortion and correct this problem for you. Usually when photographing birds you will be using a long lens and these corrections will be less obvious, however the problems are still there and need sorting.
Chromatic aberration is a little complicated to explain here, but it's vital to remove the effects - which you will see as a coloured halo on edges (usually edges of high contrast). Modern lenses and their coatings are becoming more and more efficient at cancelling out this effect - it should be noted that it took me a while to find an image with enough chromatic aberration to get across my point as the Nikon 200-500mm F/5.6 that I frequently use is highly adapt to decreasing this problem. Anyway, here is an example of chromatic aberration and how effective the 'remove chromatic aberration' option is.
Step 2 - White Balance
Correcting your white balance is vital to achieving realistic colours in your work. If you are shooting in RAW, then you really don't have to worry about white balance whilst you are shooting - you can use AUTO WB, one of the presets such as Cloudy or a set number on the Kelvin scale (I personally use 5560K, unless there is a real need to change, such as night photography).
There are many ways to correct white balance; but in CameraRaw my favourite way to adjust the white balance is to pick a preset from the drop down menu which matches the conditions of the shoot and then make small adjustments to find the point I like. I do it this way because although white balance is extremely important, the look of your image should be down to what you find pleasing, if this is slightly warmer or colder than white then so be it. Please bear in mind however, that I am using a colour accurate screen and so I can trust that the colours that I am seeing will come across in print, if you are not using a screen that is calibrated to a printer or has a bad representation of the RGB spectrum then it may be wise to use the preset and the preset alone.
Below I have placed three images; colder on the left, adjusted preset in the middle and warmer on the right. You can expand these by clicking on them.
Step 3 - Exposure
Key to making any photograph look 'as it should' is exposure... Exposure is once again down to your own idea of how the image should look. You may have heard that you should be trying to replicate the exact conditions that the subject was photographed in; I prefer to think that you should be trying to make the image look as appealing as you can without actually changing or faking the light that it was captured in. What I find appealing leans towards the brighter end of the spectrum, I generally try to push the histogram as far to the right as I can before I either start clipping the highlights.
I can't stress enough that it is dependent on the scene that you are shooting and that if you were photographing foxes at night underneath street lights for example, then brightening the image would likely ruin it. The two images below depend on their exposure as the main effect to reach the artistic aim. Firstly, by increasing the exposure, I could extend the work that was done in-camera to isolate the Mute Swans on a white background. Secondly, by lowering the exposure on the Coot image, the morning colours were saturated and the highlights popped from the dark background.
Step 4 - Shadow/Highlight
This often will not need touching, if you are shooting when it is cloudy then the light will be fairly soft anyway and so shadows will have soft transitions and not be too dark. However there are times when these two options become extremely useful. With dark subjects it's often hard to obtain detail in their feathers, this was the case with the Rook below that I used +75 shadows, along with an exposure increase to get some of the detail back into the feathers.
Below you can see the results of if I had not used the highlight slider altogether. As you can see, to keep in the detail in the snow I had to lower the exposure and now the image is far too dark.
Step 5 - Contrast and colour enhancement
Contrast, for me is a final step. I complete all the previous steps, by which point I have achieved a detailed image; by this I mean that I have the exposure correct, whilst simultaneously keeping detail in the dark and bright parts of the image. The final stage before cropping, sharpening, resizing, etc... is to add a small amount of contrast. Too much contrast and you'll find that you start to lose too much detail, not enough and you'll find that the image has no impact, no punch. Usually an increase of contrast between +5 and +15 is enough for me.
Colour enhancement is another that you really have to be careful with. Too much and it can be off putting, simply because it doesn't look real, but you can use a small amount to make a big difference. In CameraRaw, there is a useful panel called 'HSL' or 'Hue, Saturation, Luminance', which you can see next to this text.
I don't think I have ever touched the 'hue' option, but if you are interested it allows you to change certain colours, you could push your oranges closer to being red for example. I would say that I use 'saturation' to some degree on about 80% of my wildlife images and 'luminance' (brightness) on maybe 25%. On the example image below, I used the saturation panel to enhance the oranges and reds, this made the roof of the house in the background, the legs and the beak more pronounced than before and help them to stand out from the fairly muted background. And don't forget that you don't only have to take them up; in my landscape work I will often chase a muted 'pastel' type colour pallet and the HSL panel comes in handy when decreasing certain colours rather than affecting the whole image with the basic global 'saturation slider'.
Step 6 - Sharpening
Sharpening is another part of the process that seemingly has a thousand techniques, however for my wildlife work I will only tend to use one, and that is selectively using the 'unsharp mask' filter. For this part you'll need to come out of CameraRaw and into Photoshop. If you are completely done with your editing of the colours, contrast, exposure and so on, then duplicate the background layer (Command/CTRL J). Now head up to the top of the Photoshop frame and go to filter > sharpen > unsharp mask.
A box will appear in front of your image that look like the image below:
Inside the pop-up box you will get a preview of the sharpening affect. You can move this around by either dragging around inside the small preview box, or clicking on the actual image where you would like the preview to be (I would recommend the eye). Now, as you can see there are three options; amount, radius and threshold. I'll start by saying that you don't need to touch 'threshold', because we'll be selecting where we want to be sharp in the next stage. 'Amount' is fairly literal, in that the further you push the slider the more the sharpening effect is applied. 'Radius' tells Photoshop how 'blurred' the mask that it is applying is, this is a crude way of explaining and if you don't quite understand how it works then you can follow this link to read about it: www.myphotocentral.com/tutorials/unsharp-mask-explained/.
In reality, with bird photography, you don't want to stray too far from the 1.0 value with radius. I tend to go below 1.0, to about 0.8 and then have an amount of around 85-95%. The handy thing about 'unsharp mask' is that by clicking and holding inside the small preview box you can see what the image used to look like, when you release your click, it will show you the effect that you will be applying - you can then play with the sliders until you are happy with how sharp the image is. Remember though, if you're image was soft at the start, you cannot save it and end up with an acceptable image by sharpening!
You'll remember that I said my preferred method was 'selectively' using the unsharp mask filter - now comes the selective part (don't worry it's not too long or difficult). Once you've applied the filter to your duplicated layer (likely called 'layer 1'), you need to apply a mask - do this by clicking the small box with a circle inside of it on the panel below the layers. A white box will appear next to your layer.
The next step is to make sure that you have clicked on the layer mask (white square) and to use a black brush at roughly 40% hardness (you'll need to asses the hardness of the brush for your own needs) and 100% opacity to paint any area that you don't want to be sharpened. This is typically any area that isn't your subject.
Here are the results:
Step 7 - Noise Reduction
There is little need to repeat everything I just said in the sharpening step, because it is extremely similar in method for noise reduction. However, firstly, make sure that you are happy with your sharpening and then hit 'CTRL + ALT + SHIFT + E', this will merge the layers you have created and make that state a new layer on top of the old ones. Now go to filter > noise > reduce noise. There is once again a certain level of personal choice, but if your background is as soft as in the examples throughout this post, then put the strength to +10 and everything else to 0 (unless you need to reduce colour noise, in which case increase it until the colour noise is gone).
Now comes the masking, but you just created a mask for the sharpening which should be an outline of your subject. If this is not the case, then you will need to use a black brush to paint the mask where you would like the noise reduction to not affect. However, if you do have the layer mask from the sharpening, then hold down SHIFT and click and drag the layer mask up to the top layer (probably called 'layer 2') and release. The final step is to invert this new layer mask, because currently the noise reduction is affecting the subject and nothing else. To do this you simply click on the layer mask and press CTRL + i - you can now touch up the mask if needed. Remember to paint black where you want the effect to not be and white where you would like it to show up!
Here are the results:
I've included the filters so that you can see how the masks should look. I have also exaggerated the effects for the sake of this tip, I would not recommend sharpening to this amount!
This turned out to be quite a long post, but I hope it can be of help! Thank you for any likes, shares and comments, and feel free to start a conversation in the comments if you have any issues or ideas.
Before I head off to Costa Rica for the summer I thought that I would share some work that I did this year for my University course. We were tasked with creating a magazine article covering one of a few locations, I chose Bissoe Nature Reserve and decided to create an article about photographing the smaller creatures that you find by looking that little bit further. Below is the 6-page article which you can read by clicking on each individual page to expand it.
I should have quite a lot of material to post once I am back from Costa Rica, however I won't have a blog published in August, as we'll be in the middle of our study and I, most likely, won't have time. Come September I'll try and post again!
* As a disclaimer, this article was never published in digitalSLRphotography.
It's a commonly argued topic, should you do everything in camera and produce the art there and then with little need for post-processing, or do you perfect the art after the shoot through in-field techniques and post-processing?
To start, I'd like to say that because I currently only own two filters (technically three, but I'll address this later) that doesn't mean I don't want more, these are simply the two 'types' which I feel are irreplaceable through post processing. And that brings me to my main point - and also the short version of this blog post - if it can be done in post processing without sacrifices to image quality then I would chose not to spend the hundred(s) of pounds on each piece of glass. One final comment is that this is specifically for photography, not video, use of filters in video is a very different topic!
Which filters do you own?
Well I'm glad you asked! I have a circular polariser and a 6-stop ND filter and I'll begin by talking about the circular polariser. It is a 'Cokin 77mm Slim Pure Harmonie Multi Coated Circular Polarizer' and although that quite a mouthful, basically it'll set you back about £100 RRP (can be found for less) and for the price has stunning results. Cokin are a well established brand and produce quality products; they are not the best and do produce budget filters along with their top level filters which can damage a brand name, but from my dealings with their products, the expensive ones are of top quality! The 6-stop ND filter is a 'Fomatt-Hitech 77mm Firecrest Neutral Density 1.8 filter' and this one will set you back £130 RRP but can once again be found for cheaper. It is extremely well reviewed, available in all filter thread sizes and at a variety of densities.
So, what does a circular polariser do?
A circular polariser can do a couple of things to an image, but primarily (for me at least) they are used to remove reflections. If you currently own no filters and have money burning a hole in your pocket that you want to spend on something photographic then this is only type which is truly 'necessary', i.e. the effect cannot be replicated in Photoshop/Lightroom. I have used an example below to illustrate the effect - on the right is the non-polarised image and on the left is the polarised one. There's a pretty stark difference and you probably see now why this filter is irreplaceable by post-processing. Sure, you could darken the water and colourise the stream to make it closer to the polarised version, but you'd never retrieve the data of the river bed.
There's another interesting point to cover when looking at the example images above. A filter (unless graduated) makes a global adjustment, in other words it affects the whole image. Therefore personally I wouldn't consider a polarised images 'complete'. As you can see in the comparison the grasses above the stream have had the frosty shine removed from them, but I liked this part as it showed the 'wintery-ness' of the scene. Therefore, I would take one polarised and another non-polarised and then blend them together in post processing, picking each part that I liked from each.
If you are interested in finding out about the physics behind polarisation, then there are plenty of resources on the internet, but there is not enough space for me to cover it here, plus it would be like the blind leading the blind if I were to attempt an explanation...
Okay, so if the polariser is the only 'necessary' filter, why own an ND filter as well?
Well, ND filters are extremely close to being irreplaceable and personally I would say that they are, however, there is a way to replicate the effect that an ND filter has on an image (covered further down). An ND filter is used to lengthen the shutter speed. It is a uniformly dark piece of glass which blocks a given amount of light from passing through, depending on the density that you choose. A 10-stop is often the go-to ND filter as its affect is much larger than my own 6-stop is on a scene, but I prefer the flexibility of a 6-stop as if I need a little bit of a longer shutter speed then I can usually fiddle with camera settings to achieve it.
If you are wondering about the '1.8' in the name of my filter, this applies to the optical density of the glass and you can go >here< for further understanding.
I mentioned that these filters are somewhat replaceable in Photoshop and I'll quickly explain how. As a longer shutter speed records data over a longer period of time and so you see the smoothing of movement, in clouds for example, you can replicate this by shooting a timelapse and blending all the images together into one. There are times when this works perfectly but there are also times when it fails and this is why I would say that you still, with the current state of technology, need some form of ND filter.
What filters do you think aren't needed?
ND graduated filters are what I feel are not needed in any way. I am yet to come across a scene that I thought I could produce a stronger image by having an ND graduated filter. If an ND filter blocks a set amount of light from an image, then an ND graduated filter blocks the stated amount at the very top of the filter and slowly fades this out as you reach the bottom of the glass, thus allowing you to balance skies and foreground in one image. You can buy many variants of the graduation, some that have a hard edge in the centre or are inverted, thus starting at middle and fading out towards the edge of the glass. However; you could also compose a scene, expose for the sky, take a picture, then expose for the foreground and take another which can then be blended in seconds in Photoshop or Lightroom. So in essence both methods do the same jobs and I have no problem with anyone using either, however there is one way in which the post-processing method is far superior than in-camera method and that is truly custom blending/gradients.
To explain, take a look at this example....
So what filters do you want?
There are some I haven't covered and one which I have yet to mention. I do have one more filter, it's a variable ND filter and is used to affect shutter speeds whilst filming, if you're interested it is a cheap Zomei filter and I actually wouldn't recommend it! I needed a filter quickly and didn't have much money to spare and so I got this ~£40 piece of glass, which makes the image slightly softer and has a slightly 'brown-ish' colour cast. I didn't cover it fully as I just wanted to cover the filters I use for my photographic work in this article.
A category of filter which I missed was colour filters. I am not a black and white photographer by any meaning of the words. I have converted a couple of images to b+w and shot a couple for purposeful effect, however I much prefer colour images and, unless there is a purpose for it, feel that black and white takes out what I like most about nature - the vibrancy. However, if you are a black and white shooter then colour filters have their purposes - in essence they change how colours are represented in grey. I won't say much on this topic as I don't know enough, but this is great article if you want to look into it - www.photographymad.com
Of all the filters out there, the only one I'm still wanting is a 10-stop ND; the effect it has cannot be replicated by my 6-stop at times.
To conclude; polarising filters are irreplaceable, solid ND filters are extremely useful for interesting effect and ND graduated filters will help you balance the exposure between sky and foreground, but their effect is completely possible to replicate and is even surpassed in effectiveness by Photoshop/Lightroom.
Thanks for reading, hope you found it informative. Please feel free to jump into the comments if you disagree with anything I've written, its always interesting to know other people's standpoints!
An awesomely small and feature-packed flash head, the MeiKe MK320 is an affordable flash for both on and off camera uses. To summarise (in case you didn't want to read everything) the flash is: small, well constructed for the price however, it's not going to be weatherproof, has a quick charging USB port, many modes (i.e. TTL, S1, etc...), useful modelling lamps and an unreliable battery warning. There you go, if you want more detail then carry on scrolling, if not then I would recommend this flash to nearly everyone, with the main drawback being its lack of 'waterproofedness' - which easily fixed with a plastic bag being thrown over it!
Personally, I will be using this head (along with a second one) for macro photography. In the image that you can see below they are mounted on a macro flash bracket and a D810 with Sigma 150mm F/2.8 OS. This post will be about my impressions of the flash as I've only had a couple of weeks to play with it, however I will cover the flash fully in a later post and the set-up as a whole in a another review too.
The crop that you can see above is how I originally pictured my final image to be framed, however this changed quite a lot after spending some time in Photoshop.
To quickly talk you through the initial changes; I bought up the exposure closer to how it was to the eye when we were there (although looking at it now, I could have gone to about +0.70 and saved myself some steps later). There was no detail in the brightest areas that I wanted to save and so highlights stayed at 0. I increased the shadows to bring some detail into the shaded areas under the trees as I really like the silvery trunks (which is one part of the image that I 'make pop' later). Saturation and vibrance are purely a matter of taste, I liked the greens to be strong and in the light that we had that morning the colours were quite bland.
This is how it was imported in Photoshop and now comes the part when you chose which bits of the image you want brighter/darker, which colours you want more/less saturated and make the final global adjustments like brightness/contrast.
Here are all of the layers that I used to achieve the final image. The top layer (skylight filter CEP4) is from the nik color efex package, but basically it gives a slight warmth and brightness, so that could be recreated through basic adjustments.
As you can see there are four layer masks in which the masking looks very spotty (for lack of a better word). These are the layers that are only applying their adjustment to certain colours.
The first adjustment was with the 'levels'. By moving the right hand arrow to the left, you are moving all of the data to the right of the histogram and therefore making the image brighter.
This gave me a good starting point, the image was now at the brightness I wanted and it was quite flat (i.e. there was little contrast).
The next adjustment was a curves layer and this was one that I knew I wanted to only be in a specific part of the image. Using the curves I had added some brightness but mostly contrast and I didn't like what
I should quickly explain how the colour of your brush effects the mask. Basically, black means that it won't show up and white means that you will see the changes you've made. In this first case, I left the layer as white and painted black because I wanted that small area to not be affected by the adjustment. If I only wanted a small portion to show through, then it would make sense to make the mask black and paint the area that I wanted in white. You can make the mask black by inverting it, this is done by using 'CTRL i' or 'command' on a mac.
Now comes the part when I used selective masking by picking certain colours. I don't need to cover each layer from now on, because you'll understand the concept if I just explain the mask I used to make the trees 'pop'.
I started by making a vibrance adjustment and making the effect quite strong - I overdid the effect so that I could easily tell the areas that I had changed and then I went back and lowered the adjustment after completing the mask. Once you have done the adjustment, double click on the mask (white box) and another box will appear that looks like the one below.
I used exactly the same technique to brighten the trunks of the trees. If I didn't know about selecting colours I would have increased the brightness and made a mask on which I would have to paint each trunk that I wanted to be brighter. That technique would have taken a long time, but by using the colour range tool, you can just click on one of the trunks and the adjustment will instantly apply to all the trunks and only the trunks!
By using layer masks you should see a big improvement in your images, mostly because you will find them looking very close to how you pictured the image at the time you took the shot. The changes will seem minimal, like all of the ones that I made on this example, but overall it adds another level to your picture. That extra something might not be noticeable to other viewers, but I personally am much happier with my images since I learnt about this method of masking!
Thanks for reading and I hope that it helps you somehow!
If you're looking for tips, tricks, behind-the-scenes and tutorials then you're in the right place!