Rating my own pictures

The foreground is messy and the high grass blocks the view
The foreground is messy and the high grass blocks the view

At Laguna Llanganuco, during my last trip to Peru, I took a hike for about an hour along the lake. The setting was impressive:

  • a beautiful lake with a greenish color,
  • surrounded by mountains, some of them with snow,
  • a deep blue sky, hardly any clouds,
  • a view of the top of the Huascarán (highest mountain of Peru).

Altogether, really overwhelming. During this hike I took 82 pictures (actually, a bit more, however, a handful I threw out in a first round because they were out of focus). I selected only 7 for Dreamstime; all of them were accepted. The others I did not submit. The question is why.
To answer this question I rated my own pictures. Normally, I have a quick glance and reject most of them without making explicit why. It has become intuition. Now, I forced myself to make the reason for rejection explicit. Here are the reasons why:

  • Lack of composition, like lack of balance, blocking flow of the eyes, lack of depth, distracting parts of the picture etc
  • Technical flaws, like out of focus, sun flare etc
  • Snapshots, no other interest than for my own recollection

What is left over are the Winners and close to winners (of which 7 were submitted to and accepted by Dreamstime). Sometimes the differences were minimal.
Here you can view all the pictures I took at Laguna Llanganuco including my comments. And here and here are the Dreamstime pictures (including pictures from another location).
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Be selective

City of Amersfoort, the Netherlands
City of Amersfoort, the Netherlands

Nowadays it is quite easy to make hundreds of pictures and put them on the internet. You can find these type of pictures everywhere and of course they have their purpose, however, with a little bit more effort it is quite easy to improve them.
When I started submitting pictures to Dreamstime I found out that half of my pictures were not good enough. Besides that some of them were of no interest as commercial stock, most of the refusals had some issues:

  • Poor composition Eyes are drawn to specific parts of a picture. There is the Rule of Thirds saying that the important objects in your pictures should be at the grid point of a 3-by-3 grid. From a visual point of view it makes the picture more pleasing and interesting. It has a lot to do with the way eyes wonder over the picture. For example, bright or dark spots on the edge will pull your eyes off the picture. Rule of Thirds is a good way to get started, however, there are also approaches based on visual mass and (circular) flow of your eyes. In a future blog I will come back to this (see also this blog).
  • Out of focus  This may be caused by several reasons. One is that if you are in a hurry you do not correctly focus on the object. Another one is that the depth-of-field (DOF) is too small causing some parts of important objects to be out of focus. If there is not enough light, do not open the lens, instead increase the ISO.
  • Incorrect lightning Parts of the picture might be over- or underexposed. For example, dark buildings and a very bright sky. This means that details have disappeared in the lighter or darker parts. If the dynamic range of your camera is large enough you may still correct this by lowering the Highlights and getting more lights in the Shadows. Otherwise, avoid these kind of situations.
  • Distorted pixels This term is used quite often in the Dreamstime community. The definition is given by examples. Distorted pixels do not exist in your camera, either a pixels works or not. Looking at the examples, the main reason is overprocessing the picture: too much sharpening., too much contrast. The algorithms are not always able to handle this resulting in blurred pixels in your pictures, or outliers as far as color is concerned.
  • Lens fringing When you enlarge the picture to 100% you may see purple or green lines on lines with high contrast. This is caused by the lens, which is sometimes not able to project light of different wave lengths to the right position. Lightroom has a simple way to remove this. Please always check at 100%.
  • Logos For Royalty Free pictures all logos and brand names have to be removed. It is also possible to submit as Editorial picture, the question is of course whether it is of any value as Editorial picture. Again, check at 100% because small logo on somebody’s watch is overseen quite easily.
  • Identifiable persons For Royalty Free pictures for all identifiable persons you need a Model Release Document, which provides information about the model and the fact that the model agrees that the pictures are sold.

Sacred grounds of Yungay and snow-capped Huascar‡n during sunset, Peru
Sacred grounds of Yungay and snow-capped Huascar‡n during sunset, Peru

Nowadays I am more aware of the above issues. I have learnt quite a lot from the refusals. I hope you will do the same.  At the same time, I do not always agree with the editors. Above and on the left two of my recent refusals (poor composition). Dreamstime has the advantage to ask for a second opinion. This past year my acceptance rate is well above 90%. Please enjoy all my pictures at Dreamstime.
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Past and Present: 33 years apart

Chavín de Huantar
Chavín de Huantar 1982

Chavín de Huantar is an archeological site near Huaraz that goes back to 1200 BC. It has, among others, been used by the Chavín culture, a pre-Inca culture, until around 500 BC. During my first trip to Peru, 33 years ago, I made the above picture. It is a digital scan of a diapositive (slightly processed). In those days I used film, however, for this trip they advised me to use diapositive film because of the colorful projections by the light of a projector. Due to the scan the picture is not as good as the original.
Since then, a lot of things have changed:

  • Chavín de Huantar is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which means that it is kept in optimal condition and that continuously archeologists are working there.
  • The route to it has been improved quite a lot to make it more accessible for the tourists.
  • The original diapositive (slide) was taken with a very simple analog camera (I forgot the brand); currently I use a semi-professional camera Nikon D800.
  • The analog camera had a fixed lens; here I used a Nikkor 28-300mm zoom lens.
  • In those days I had my camera on Automatic; nowadays I mainly shoot in Aperture-priority and NEF (see my blog on this).
  • The diapositive film was developed in a darkroom and not by me; currently I turn NEF into JPG by using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
  • In those days GPS was used for military purposes; now everybody has at least one GPS (e.g. in your smartphone).
  • Sharing my slides meant setting up the projector and a screen in the living room; in digital form there are many ways to share your pictures with everybody all over the world.
  • In those days I had no idea there was an interest in my pictures; now I sell licenses to use them via Dreamstime and I can sell it to several customers (not just one).

The thing that has not changed is that in those days I was very proud of my pictures, and this still holds.
Below I substantially cropped a picture I have taken on my last trip to Peru to get a similar picture as the one from 1982.

Chavín de Huantar 2015
Chavín de Huantar 2015

For more pictures of Peru accepted by Dreamstime, click here. Enjoy! Update: licenses of all pictures of Chavin de Haunter have been sold.
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Settings: in which mode to shoot?

IMG_0810In this blog I will discuss the right mode to shoot: Aperture-Priority Mode, Shutter Speed-Priority Mode, or Manual Mode.
In Automatic Mode (A or P) it is the camera that decides what kind of picture is taken instead of you. So, the first step is to step away from Automatic Mode. The second step is to decide what is more important:

  • Large or small depth of field (Aperture Priority: Shutter Speed is computed automatically).
  • Frozen movements or not (Shutter Speed Priority: Aperture is computed automatically).

Aperture-Priority Mode (A)
Most of the time I use Aperture-Priority to have control over the depth of field. Wide open aperture to have a small depth of field to get the subject in focus and the background completely out of focus. This draws the eyes to the subject. Or, and almost closed aperture to get a large depth of field which is handy in for example landscape and cityscape. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions. While closing the aperture, the shutter speed goes up (longer time). If it is longer than 1/60th or 1/30th of a second, you should use a tripod. An alternative is to increase the ISO to keep a fast shutter speed.
Shutter Speed-Priority Mode (S)
When shooting activities with fast movements, it is best to use Shutter Speed-Priority so you can decide yourself if you want to freeze movements or not. Keep in mind that fast moving objects close by require a much faster shutter speed than when they are far away. Normally 1/60th of a second is enough, however, if you use a long telelens, for example mm, then you should us a faster Shutter Speed than 1/th of a second. This is to make sure that you do not need a tripod.
Manual Mode (M)
In Manual Mode you can set the Aperture and Shutter Speed yourself to get the lighting you want. I mainly use that in two cases:

  • when using flash, so I can decide the Aperture and Shutter Speed I want; longer Shutter Speeds give more ambient light and more saturated colors.
  • when there is not enough light I want to make sure that I have the right Shutter Speed; if there is not enough light the ISO is increased automatically.

In one of the next blogs I will discuss the use of lenses.

Update: I am a great fan of Sean Tucker. Here a YouTube video of him advocating manual mode.

Settings: before shooting

IMG_0801Especially the more advanced digital cameras have many buttons. In this blog I discuss the settings before shooting.
Before you start shooting pictures check your settings! Sometimes your camera still has the settings of your previous photoshoot. Also check your batteries, both of your camera and your external flash, if you are going to use one.
RAW – JPG
RAW has the advantage that you can adjust exposure, white balance etc  afterwards before making a jpg file. Using the JPG setting this is not possible. The advantage of jpg is that the conversion of RAW to jpg is done fully automatic in the camera resulting in smaller files: faster transfer, easier to share with others and on the web. The disadvantage is that the automatic conversion may not result in the picture you had in mind. Using RAW gives you full control. Because of that I always use RAW.
Color space
Adobe RGB is a bigger color space than sRGB. The advantage of Adobe RGB is that the colors can be more saturated (which is nice for printing). The disadvantage is that not all browsers support Adobe RGB resulting most of the time in dull colors. I normally shoot using Adobe RGB and convert it to sRGB for pictures on the web (although I am a bit sloppy). For Dreamstime I do not know where the pictures will be used (print or web), so I leave it to Adobe RGB.
ISO
In principle I leave the ISO on 100. During daytime, it gives the best quality picture you can imagine. However, if there is not enough light, I use the following setting: if, for a particular combination of Aperture – Shutter Speed, there is not enough light the ISO is increased automatically. Most advanced cameras still do very well for very high ISO values. Capturing the moment is most of the time more important than the quality of the final picture. And using a flash would ruin the ambiance completely. Leave the ISO, however, on low values during a night shoot if you want the night to be black.
White Balance
Most of the time I leave the White Balance on automatic. In combination with shooting RAW this is no problem. It can be adjusted during post processing. Some say you should set the White Balance right during the shoot to get a better view of the colors. Wearing reading glasses I prefer to see the pictures on my iMAC afterwards  instead of the screen of a camera.
Next time I will discuss the settings during the photoshoot.

Putting a picture on canvas: experiencing printed pictures

Beautiful view Yellow Mountain, ChinaIn our digital world most of the pictures taken stay on a smart phone or PC, or appear on the web. They are hardly ever printed. In the digital form it is quite easy to share pictures, at the same time we value paintings in our houses or offices. Pictures are in the same way a form of art which you can hang on your wall.
Printed pictures are something special. Especially in large formats. I first started to print in A4 format with my own HP inkjet printer; now I print in A3 format via Fotofabriek in Groningen, the Netherlands. Holding the pictures in your hands gives quite a different perception compared to viewing them on a screen. Also looking at these printed pictures together with others is a much nicer experience. Maybe in future, if there is enough demand, I will buy an A2 printer to further explore this special experience to view a large picture.
The next step is putting a picture on canvas to hang it on the wall. Below an example of a canvas in our living room. The picture was selected by my daughter.

Beautiful view in the Alps
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

It really give me the feeling that I am hiking with a backpack in the Alps. The quality of the pictures is more than enough to make a large canvas of perfect quality. I print my canvas at Profotonet near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Make sure you convert to the color space indicated by the printing company, for example sRGB.
If you feel like making your own canvas or poster you should have a look at my albums. If you find a picture in one of these albums  of your interest, please contact me. For a reasonable price you may obtain a high quality jpg. Enjoy!
See also my post on My own shop @ Werk aan de Muur

Flash: how to make it easy

flashesIn the beginning I used the built-in flash of my camera. Although I realized that the pictures I took had little to do with what I saw, I did not know what to do. Then I bought a separate flash for the hot shoe on the camera. The reason was that this one was more powerful and I could use the ceiling or a wall to get indirect light. Although this was an improvement, it was still not what I had in mind.
The Hot Shoe Diaries and Sketching Light of Joe McNally made me aware of the wide variety of possibilities of using one or more flashes and getting better pictures. He is a very enthusiastic author and makes using several flashes to get better lighting easy. This book has been very influential for me.
The first step is to take the flash off the camera and put it either on the right or left of you. This will create some shadows and gives a better feeling of three dimensions. This is quite an improvement compared to the built-in flash that hits the subject right in front leaving only cast shadows. Cast shadows, by the way,  can be avoided in several ways: use several flashes, place the subject far away from the background, make the flash bigger by using a softbox.

single_flash softbox
Small flash – hard light Big light – soft light

The second step is to understand how the camera via the built-in flash (master) communicates with the off-shoe flash (slave) without flashing itself. You probably have to read your manuals. The idea is that the built-in flash communicates with the other flash just before the curtain opens.  If you know how to do this it is quite easy to start using several flashes (left, right, rear, or top) with different flash power. This is real fun!
The third step is choosing the right Aperture and Shutter Speed. Actually, the Shutter Speed has no influence on the light coming from the flash. The duration of the flash is much shorter than the opening of the curtain. With some cameras you can go all the way down to 1/250 sec. On the other hand, if you leave the curtain open a bit longer, like 1/30 sec, then you will also catch some ambient light. It is important to remember that independent of the shutter speed the flash light freezes motion. The Aperture determines how much light we let through to the sensor. In TTL-mode (automatic mode), however, widening the Aperture does not give a brighter picture, only the flash requires less power; in M-mode (manual mode) it would make the picture brighter. In both cases the power balance between the various flashes is important, because it determines how much light each side of the subject gets.
The final step is to experiment:

  • where to position the flashes;
  • the power balance between the flashes;
  • use TTL- or M-mode of the flash;
  • what type of softbox gives the right light;
  • what type of background gives the right atmosphere

Enjoy, you will learn a lot from it!

Shutter speed: slow or fast?

20110806_1466
The Shutter Speed simply determines how long the sensor is exposed to light. Common is to use shutter speeds faster than or equal to 1/60 sec to make sure that slight movements of subjects and maybe also of the camera are more or less frozen. In general this works fine. However,

  • if the lens becomes too long it is best to take a shutter speed 1/x sec, where x is the length of the lens;
  • if due to low lightening the shutter speed becomes too long (less than 1/30 sec) it is best to increase the ISO;
  • if the subject moves fast and is close by don’t underestimate the required shutter speed to freeze the subject;
  • when using flash it is possible to use a slower shutter speed (for example 1/30 sec) to catch some of the ambient light without blurring the subject.

However, freezing the subject might not be the goal. There are many examples where slower shutter speeds better grasp what we experience: lights of moving cars in the dark, waves of the ocean, waterfalls etc. There is an almost unlimited number of possibilities to use slow shutter speed. Crafts and Vision has a nice eBook about this, called Slow by Andrew Gibson. In this case it is a good idea to use a tripod to avoid movements of the camera. Have fun with experimenting with slow shutter speeds.

Hike near Oosterbeek and White Balance

Oosterbeek januari 2015
Last Sunday I hiked near Oosterbeek (see map below). It is a really beautiful area, a mix of woods and open areas, just north of the river Nederrijn. This particular morning you could see the frost and the sun was still pretty low with warm colors. Here you can see some of the pictures I took.

This track comes from www.wandeleninoosterbeek.nl
I always shoot RAW, this allows me to change some of the settings, for example, the White Balance. I set White Balance always to Auto White Balance, AWB. When I am back home I set it to an appropriate value.
Changing the White Balance can have a substantial impact on the way the picture looks: if a picture is taken during normal daylight and we set the White Balance to Shade it will start adding red colors (to compensate the bluish colors in the shade), making the picture warmer. The same happens, however, to a lesser extent when setting the White Balance to Cloudy.
Looking at my RAW pictures I noticed that the pictures looked cooler than I remembered and intended, so during processing I set the White Balance to Cloudy, giving the pictures a warmer expression and also making the effect of the backlight of the sun more visible. Setting it to Shade was a bit overdone. It is just a matter of experimenting.
Keep in mind that we do not have to make an identical copy of reality, we want to make a picture that expresses what we felt when we took the picture.

Aperture: getting to know your DoF

Beautiful view in the Alps, Switzerland
(Aperture f/20, Shutter Speed 1/125 sec, ISO 200) with 16mm lens; DOF is infinite
The Aperture determines the amount of light that goes to the sensor. At the same time it also determines which area of the picture is sharp. A wide open Aperture has a much smaller Depth of Field (DoF) then an almost closed Aperture. For example, for a 50mm lens the DoF at 2 meter is:

  • 26.6cm for an Aperture of f/2.8, and
  • 100.1cm for f/11.0.

This is quite a difference. Also, the DoF decreases for longer lenses. For example, for a 200mm lens the DoF at 2 meter is:

    • 1,5cm for an Aperture of f/2.8, and
    • 6.1cm for f/11.0

(all these values were computed with an iPhone app called Simple DoF of Dennis van den Berg for a full frame camera).
So, the question we should ask ourselves is what type of picture do we want to take. If, on the one hand, we want to highlight our subject it is nice to have a small DoF, because it leaves the background blurry. Our eyes tend to go to sharp areas in the picture and to avoid the blurry areas. Exactly what we want. This is often used for portrait photography. There are a couple of pitfalls to be aware of:

  • a DoF that is too small may unintentionally leave part of the person unsharp;
  • when shooting several people they may not be at the same distance from the camera, so make your DoF a bit bigger to make sure everybody is sharp (unless you don’t want to).

On the other hand, for landscapes and storytelling portrait pictures everything has to be sharp, requiring a large DoF. A common rule of thumb is: if you need a large DoF use a wide angle lens and a small Aperture and for a small DoF use a telelens with a large Aperture. For portrait photography and pictures of details I use my Nikkor 135mm and Nikkor 70-200mm lenses, and for land- and cityscapes I use my Nikkor 16-35mm lens.
Female student working on maquette in design lab
(Aperture f/3.5, Shutter Speed 1/80, ISO 100) with 135mm lens; DOF is 4.3cm