How To Take Good Photos

Neil’s mentioned tangentially about some of his pre shot and post processing techniques and that’s what today’s post turned into. It started as a test post because he got a new toy this week…and he took and processed some shots out back at the pond and was looking at the results with various processing options…and I decided to write about that.

Now Ima not gonna claim that he’s Ansel Adams…he ain’t and he knows that…but he’s been doing this quite awhile and isn’t too bad at it…and I figured that some of you readers might also be photographers and if I tellya ‘bout his way of doing things both pre shot and in post processing it might give you some tidbits to ponder for your own photos. If you take photos only on your phone and put them on Instagram or Twitter…a lot of this won’t really apply but even iPhone orAndroid device photos…particularly if it’s a relatively newish model as phone cameras are getting pretty darned good these days…can be significantly improved by some post processing.

Ok…pre shooting stuff first.

The biggest recommendation I can make here is to take your camera out of Auto Everything mode…in this mode it decides everything about focus and the various elements of the exposure triangle…and since it doesn’t have the slightest idea about what you’re actually intending to do with this photo it can’t possibly make the best decision. It can make an adequate decision but you might not get the shot you want. If you get out of Auto mode or Program mode depending on your brand and instead choose Aperture preferred or Shutter preferred or Neil’s fave Manual with Auto ISO…you still get the camera calculating the right exposure for you but you get to pick one or two or even 2 and a half of the things that make up the Exposure Triangle and you can set them to get the shot you want.

This is known as the Exposure Triangle which sounds complicated but it’s really not…it’s just a way of determining how much light of what type hits your sensor. There are three things that make up the triangle…shutter speed which is how long the sensor is exposed, aperture which is a function of the lens opening, and ISO which is a function of how sensitive the sensor is for this shot. 

Shutter speed is measured in fractions or multiples of a second…like 1/1600 seconds or 1/15 second or 2 seconds…and determines how much motion or freeze frame action you get in your image. The longer it is…the more likely you’ll start to get motion blur in your subject or due to the camera moving in your hands during the exposure but slower shutter speeds give you that beautiful flowing water effect you see in Neil’s waterfall shots and as long as they’re not too slow they allow you to use a wider aperture (I will talk about that in a sec) and lower ISO (ditto). Faster shutter speeds freeze action…like a bird in flight or a running deer…too slow of a shutter speed in those and the animal moves during the exposure and you end up with blurry photos. Sometimes that’s OK if it’s what you’re looking for…but sometimes it’s not OK. Aperture is a lens function and is represented as something like f4 her f5.6…it runs as low as 1.2 and as high as 32 depending on your lens. What aperture does for you is determine the depth of field in your image…called DoF. In reality…only a single distance from the lens is perfectly in focus as determined by your autofocus system, but the area in front of and behind the focus plane is still almost in focus and good enough…and the farther you get in front of or behind it the further out of complete focus it becomes. Aperture determines the limits of the in front of and behind area that is in focus…but it’s an inverse relationship for reasons of physics and lens design that I won’t explain here because you don’t really care why…so f4 has a narrower distance range that’s in focus than say f8 does. The exact dimensions of the DoF range depend on lens focal length, aperture selected, and distance to the subject (DoF is less at closer ranges all other things being equal). So…one cares about DoF because you need to determine how much of your scene you want in perfect focus. For something like a bird…you want it in focus but would like the background and foreground blurred out to concentrate attention on the bird. For a landscape…you want both the nearby trees and cliff edge as well as the distant mountains to all be in focus…so in the former you would typically prefer something like f4 or f5.6 and in the latter you would typically want f11 or f13. The third factor in the triangle…ISO…is essentially the sensitivity of your sensor. Higher ISO is like low light vision on TV shows and lets you get shots in darker conditions. In a perfect world…that’s good…but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world and while higher ISO seems like a great idea higher ISOs come along with more noise in the image as you’ll see in some of the images I posted below. What ISOs are acceptable to you depend on what you take pictures of, what camera you bought, and where the images are displayed. For instance…Neil’s Nikon Z7II makes great images from it’s base ISO of 64 up to ISO 6,400…and acceptable images up to 25,000 or so depending on the situation and how much noise his noise reduction program can get rid of.

He used to shoot in Aperture preferred unless it was action and then shifted to Shutter preferred mode…and set either the aperture for his desired DoF or the shutter speed based on the action. He then let the camera choose the other two settings but looked in the viewfinder readout to see what they were and if either shutter/aperture or ISO got out of what he was comfortable with for a shot he would adjust his aperture speed if he could to balance the 3 legs of the triangle as much as possible.

Then he got turned onto what he uses now by one of his photo buddies…Steve Perry at…Steve is a great wildlife photographer and also is excellent at teaching you how to get great results like he does by knowing how to expose and process an image…and what’s important in each phase of the process. That is Manual plus Auto ISO

In this method of exposure…he chooses the speed and aperture and lets the camera choose the ISO…that way he has control of the two most important factors in the triangle…and by observing the ISO in the viewfinder he can cheat the two factors he’s setting if necessary to get a lower ISO than the camera would select…it’s still an auto exposure mode despite the name. Typically he shoots his lenses wide open for action or wildlife…this is the smallest number for the f stop…which gives the narrowest possible DoF range for subject isolation from the background…and he chooses a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the action. For landscapes…a wider DoF is good so the lens gets stopped down and with no action (and probably the camera on a tripod) he can slow the shutter speed down…those lower the ISO and reduce noise. For waterfalls…definitely on a tripod…the shutter gets even slower down to probably a second or even 2 to 3 seconds…and he brackets the exposure shooting underexposed, properly exposed, and overexposed but otherwise identical shots then merges them in processing to both have good shadow area detail and not to blow out the highlights in the scene.

With all that said and done…he’s got the RAW images on his memory card. He used to shoot in JPEG mode which does some post processing in the camera but the important thing is that some of the data from the sensor is irretrievably thrown away by the JPEG process…and it can never be recovered. For the best final image…he shoots in what is called RAW mode where the data from the sensor is recorded with no processing whatsoever.

JPEGs are good for instagram shots and vacation shots…but for maximum final shot quality…people usually shoot RAW and process later. Out of the camera…RAW images don’t look very good but that’s because it’s just unaltered sensor data…the post processing program you use applies specific adjustments to the data based on the camera body and lens you used and the computer you’re processing the image with to get the best output…based on what the software writers decided was the definition of best output. However…you can tweak any adjustment the RAW processor made to achieve the image you wanted to get.

Ok…on to post processing…or WDND for What Does Neil Do.

He uses a program called Adobe Lightroom for his primary processing and image management and passes the image from Lightroom to other applications for more detailed work and the result gets passed back to Lightroom.

The first step is to import the images into Lightroom. This copies the image from the camera memory card to the computer hard drive…and each user decides how to organize images. Neil does them by year then by location inside the year, then by date inside the location…but it’s completely arbitrary and everybody uses what makes sense for them. Some do it solely by naming each individual shoot with no regard for date, some by job if they’re professionals getting paid for the photos, and a myriad of other options. As part of the import process…keywords get assigned…like Great Blue Heron or Brown Bear or Waterfall or Florida…this allows you later to find a photo you want by sorting by all waterfalls, then Utah, then time frame…and look at all the photos that meet those criteria on a grid so you can say “that’s the one” and select it for further processing or use.

Once everything is in Lightroom and keyword…he goes through each shot of a shoot one by one…this might be as many as 700 or 800 frames for even something like a day trip after he gets all of Connie’s and his photos in from 2 or even 3 camera bodies. Each photo gets marked as Rejected (out of focus or missed the shot or clipped the bird’s right wingtip off for instance), left as unmarked or assigned 1 star (shots can get from 1 to 5 stars and everybody does this part differently…the idea is to mark the shots you think you want to use for the blog or whatever). Sometimes…well, actually all the time…they’ve got 40 or 50 shots between them of the bird in question from different angles, lighting if it’s moving around, foliage interfering or not and what have you so lots of times a shot early in the sequence of a subject gets a 1 but later gets no stars because there were better ones down the road. Eventually…he has all the 1 star shots for potential blog fodder selected. At that point…the rejected shots get permanently deleted from the Lightroom catalog and from the drive since they’re bad. He then filters only the 1 star shots and now instead of 700 or 800 he’s only got 40 or 50 and he knows that 25-30 will make the blog but they need processing to figure out which 3 elk shots of the possible 7 he actually wants to use.

Next up is noise reduction…you never want to process noise so get rid of it first. For that…the 1 star shots get passed along to DxO PureRAW which is a specific noise reduction app…so he hits select all and drops them on DxO. He then clicks Process Images…and goes away for awhile as noise reduction on 40 or 50 images takes 20 or 30 minutes. DxO produces new files with the same name as before but DxO added at the end. When processing is complete…the noise reduced images get sent back to Lightroom for more work.

Next up is processing…each image starts with the Auto button and Lightroom adjusts exposure, colors, shadows, highlights, whites, blacks and another dozen or two sliders to what it thinks is right for this image. Usually it’s pretty good although to his mind it always increases the exposure too much so normally he pulls that slider back to the left a little. He also tweaks any other sliders as needed. One thing I didn’t mention before…Lightroom is a non destructive editor. Nothing you do affects the basic file from the camera…it just keeps list of changes you made and when you export the image for the blog it applies the changes only to the exported file as well as to the visual appearance of the image on the screen in Lightroom…so you can always go back and change things if you need to. After this he crops the image as needed…usually to a ration of 16 wide by 10 tall for the blog and sometimes zooms in to the subject by cropping although this reduces the number of pixels in the output image. At that point…he starts to use some of the magic artificial intelligence tools to further refine the shot. The latest version of Lightroom allows you to pick Select Subject…and it will select only the subject of the shot. How it figures out the bird is the subject and what comprises the bird is the whole AI part…all I can say is that it works pretty darned good. He then modifies the subject selection with a brush tool to add or remove parts it got wrong (not to often an outcome though). Then you can make further adjustments…but the difference is that instead of adjusting say the exposure of the whole image you only adjust the area that is selected. You can also select Sky or by color or by several other methods and can combine or invert selections. This allows you to choose the subject and bring it a little brighter then select the background and darken it or blur it a bit more to make the subject pop more…he really likes the new AI selection features.

Along the way…perhaps a few more adjustments of sliders as it seems needed also happen.

Finally…sharpening is considered. Some shots need a little and some are just fine. In addition…whether or not to increase the resolution gets considered since these go hand in hand. Depending on whether the shot was with Connie’s 20 megapixel Z50 or his much higher 45 megapixel Z7II and how much the image was cropped the cropped version might or might not be a little blurry…so this is where sharpening and resolution increases come into play. You’ve all seen on CSI and NCIS how the computer nerds enhance images to turn blocky pixelated faces into something detailed enough so that the license plate can be read or the face run through facial recognition. I have to tell you though…real software that one can actually use is never, never, never as good as it seems like it is on TV. It’s pretty good at enhancing details and making it look sharper but doesn’t really do it as well as TV supposedly does.

With all processing complete…he upgrades the shots he’s gonna use to 2 stars and also assigns the color blue since in his organization scheme blue means “output for blog”. Then the 2 star blue shots get selected and exported to web…he sets them for 1024 pixels wide which it fits the browser window and his standard export to web template has a few other options set.

With that…he’s done processing and it’s off to me to write the blog.

OK…now that I’ve blathered on ‘bout that long enough…let’s see a few shots of his new lens (a Nikon Z 100-400 zoom lens). He hasn’t done his detailed comparison to the 500PF lens that we know as “the bird lens” yet but on initial testing he sees no reduction in final image quality, the lens weighs the same as the bird lens, it works fine with both the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters so is effectively a longer focal length lens (i.e. it’s more telephoto than before) and the zoom means it has varying focal lengths so it is much more flexible. He’s had plenty of instances with the 500PF bird lens was actually too much magnification and he had to back up to get the whole bird into the frame…which sometimes means that now a tree limb is in the way. Simply zooming out a little solves the framing problem without him having to move and change the angle of the shot.

First up…the juvenile Little Blue Heron Changeling out back of the lanai. Taken at 800mm focal length and cropped for the first shot after DxO noise reduction…then all other versions came from the cropped DxO file with various combinations. You can tell the difference between the shots if you look closely…but it takes multiple loos at things like the bird’s eye which should be tack sharp and how much the background is blurred and how much feather details comes out and on and on.

This is the shot straight out of the camera with only the DxO noise reduction, Lightroom adjustments and cropping applied.

Z72 3126 No Enhance

Same as above but with Topaz Sharpen AI applied.

DXO TopSharp Edit

This one has the resolution doubled in Lightroom then Topaz Sharpen AI.

DXO LR Double TopSharp

Original shot but with Topaz Gigapixel resolution doubling and sharpening…Gigapixel is a single purpose tool and does a better job at resolution increase than Lightroom…and it also allows you to increase resolution up to 6x while Lightroom does 2x and only 2x. GP is slower (a lot) and more post processing workflow steps (a medium amount) so it’s generally used only for shots that really need more resolution and Lightroom’s is used when a lesser amount is needed…but by the time you do that and then the round trip via Sharpen AI it’s almost as long. He hasn’t decided really whether Lightroom doubling or Gigapixel doubling is better…it really depends on the image. He takes his best guess and if he doesn’t like the way it turns out he tries the other one and either picks the better of the two, uses without resolution increase, or ditches it entirely from the blog depending.


Tricolor Heron.

Z72 3130 NEF DxO DeepPRIME

One of our alligators swimming across the pond.

Z72 3136 NEF DxO DeepPRIME

Z72 3138 NEF DxO DeepPRIME

These two are otherwise terrible images…but I wanted to show you what a dramatic difference the DxO PureRAW noise reduction does…in particular look at the green paint on the wall and you can see the noise reduction.

Out of the camera

Z72 3140

Same image after DxO PureRAW noise reduction.

Z72 3140 NEF DxO DeepPRIME

And finally…another shot of…I think…the same alligator as the two sunset shots above…only this time it is over on Ragnar Bench at the left end of the pond.

Z72 3147 NEF DxO DeepPRIME

Hopefully the above description and suggestions can help you improve your photography…Neil learned a lot by watching YouTube videos and reading how to pages on the interwebs so passing knowledge along is a good thing.


About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
This entry was posted in Critters, Photography, Technology, WIldlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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