Bright pixels are…

…sharp pixels.

Look a this image:

Dark, but as you know, we can rescue dark images in Lightroom or Photoshop. Especially if, as here, we shot them in the RAW format – which you really always should do.

So, into Lightroom, notch the image’s exposure up a couple of stops, perhaps play with “Whites” and “Shadows” a little, and done! Right?

Yes. But.

While we successfully increased the level of the dark parts of exposure, we also at the same time increased the noise (“grain”, if you will). Noise, after all, is like cockroaches: it hides mainly in the dark. Look at a small detail:

See? Grainy.

Compare that with the next image I shot, which at first looks just about the same, at least in terms of exposure – I shot this one at a slower shutter speed:

But this one I exposed well – I did not have to electronically increase the exposure, so I did not increase the noise. So a small section of this image looks like this:

If like me you were an engineer, you would say that it has a “higher signal to noise ratio” than the previous, electronically doctored, image.

So that is why we try to expose as correctly as we can, rather than relying on RAW to fix it for us later.

(You can even expose “to the right”, i.e. expose too brightly, as long s you do not lose detail in the bright areas. If you manage to do that successfully, you can pull the image down later, thus increasing the signal to noise ratio. I have written about this here before, look it up).


Michael’s Top Ten Dicta

Legally speaking, a Dictum is “a statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative though not binding, because of the authority of the person making it”. More generally, it is “a noteworthy statement: as (a) : a formal pronouncement of a principle, proposition, or opinion; (b) : an observation intended or regarded as authoritative.” Google it if you want.

So, assuming you know me and trust my judgement, you may well be interested in my Top Ten Dicta:

  1. Bright pixels are sharp pixels. The more you make your subject bright pixels, the more it will be sharp and crisp. Noise hides in the darkness, like cockroaches. Light your subject and it becomes sharp.
  2. Go wide and get close. Wide angles combined with proximity to something introduces depth and perspective into y our images.
  3. Indoors flash: point your flash up, 45 degrees behind you. This gives you the correct light angle for close-by portraits, like in events.
  4. Indoors flash: Use the “4-4-4″ rule” as your camera setting starting point: Camera on manual, 400 ISO, 1/40th sec, f/4. Then adjust for brighter or darker rooms, to give average ambient exposure of around -2 stop.
  5. Turn baby turn. Feel free to angle your shots whenever you like. Composition, simplifying, energy: whatever your reasons. It’s cool, it’s allowed.
  6. You, and the lens, make the picture. Cameras are cool – I buy a lot of them – but the picture is made by you – even an iPhone can produce cool shots – and more technically, by the lens. A good lens on a cheap body is great. A cheap lens on a good body, not so much.
  7. Go Prime If You Can. Prime lenses lose on convenience but win in every other way. I love my 35mm f/1.4 lens.
  8. Use off-centre composition and the rule of thirds in your compositions.
  9. Get close: fill the frame. This so often makes your images better, it is worth stressing as a Dictum.
  10. Simplify! Ask yourself: is everything in my image the subject or the supporting background? If not, get rid of it. A circle has 360 degrees.

That’s my wisdom in a nutshell. Do you know, understand, feel, and above all use all ten principles above?

Learn about these and much more in one of my training or private coaching sessions. There is 10% December Discount – this is a great time to consider buying a friend a session with me: buy a Gift Certificate for the holiday season!

Can you use a Canon 7D at high ISO?

Yes you can. Especially when you use Lightroom 3 noise reduction.

I want to show you this picture again – a repeat, but now with full sized crops and re-edited with Lightroom 3’s magic noise cancellation.

Here is the cat, shot with my 7D and a 50mm lens set to f/2, at 3200 ISO. And.. pushed 1.67 stops.

Meaning I underexposed, and increased exposure on the computer. This results in the worst noise you will ever see, much worse than you will see when using the camera properly.

Here is a detail from it, in the original size crop with no noise cancellation. Click to see it at real size.

Cat's eye with noise, shot by Michael Willems at 3200 using a Canon 7D

Cat's eye with noise

Now we apply 90% noise reduction. Magic:

Cat's eye with noise reduction, shot by Michael Willems at 3200 using a Canon 7D

Cat's eye with noise reduction

The finished picture:

Cat with noise reduction, shot by Michael Willems at 3200 using a Canon 7D

Cat with noise reduction

So do not be afraid of high ISO when you need it. It’s fine. Relax.

Hyper real

With today’s fast cameras, big sensors, and great noise reduction technology, like that in Lightroom 3 tha I described earlier (magic), we can see better with our cameras than we can in real life. It is fun to experiment with that.

Like in Montreal the other day. Here’s a street the way it looked to me:

McGill College in the dark, photographed by Michael Willems

McGill College in the dark

But with my camera (a Canon 1D Mark IV) set to auto ISO, and at 3,000 ISO, I got this:

McGill College in the dark, photographed by Michael Willems

McGill College in the dark, at 3000 ISO

And by white balancing this RAW imaging to correct the yellow Sodium light, we get this:

McGill College in the dark, photographed by Michael Willems

McGill College in the dark

I can actually see better with my cameras than I can see in real life.

And I suggest you all try this. Go out and use auto ISO or a very high manual ISO. Apply noise reduction (in the camera if you shoot JPG, or in Lightroom so you get more control). See what happens!

Le Chat, etc: Montréal ce soir

A quick walk through Montréal. 32-12800 ISO and Lightroom noise reduction.. Wow. Wow. And wow. Both Montreal and the low noise performance:

Montreal church, by Michael Willems

Montreal church, by Michael Willems

Montreal Wall, by Michael Willems

Montreal Wall, by Michael Willems

Montreal, by Michael Willems


And my favourite:

Le Chat, photographed by Michael Willems

Le Chat (en Montréal)

All this shot handheld with a 1D Mark IV and a 16-35 f/2.8 lens. At ISOs up to 12,800, and with Lightroom 3 noise reduction applied.

ISO to the rescue

A beginners tip, today. About ISO.

All being engineers, you all know that ISO stands for the International Standards Organisation, of course. And you all know that the engineers in Japan chose this term to indicate the camera’s sensitivity setting. You can set the sensitivity of your camera, where more sensitivity means you can take pictures in the dark.

It also means faster shutter speeds. Try this: have someone wave at you indoors and, with your camera set to 100 ISO and with its flash turned off, take a picture. You will see this:

Now set the camera to 1600 ISO.

That means 16 times higher sensitivity (four stops) – which means 16 times shorter shutter speed, as the camera does not need as long to gather the same amount of light; hence 16 times less time for motion blur.

So now you get this:

The price? Noise. More noise, just as when you turn up the radio when you are hearing  a weak signal. The volume will  increase, but so will the noise. In photos, we used to call this “grain”, after the larger silver crystal grains that captured the light on negatives.

But usually, that is a small price to pay if you want to avoid blurry hands.