I was thinking what to include in the blog post today, and in the end I thought that I will create a small video tutorial, for something I do very often in my editing. So here it is. In this video, I will show you have I use luminance selection and curves, to brighten and darken parts of the photo, without loosing the overall contrast.

You can also download the PSD of the final file that you can see in the video from Dropbox here.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask, and don’t forget to switch the video to 720p :)

For more videos from me, check out my Video tutorial series Master exposure blending here:
banner-master

With the cameras getting better and better, and also the focusing systems getting better, I still think manual focusing is still the way to go. And in this post, I will try to show you why, and also how to do it, so you get the best results all the time.

Why focus manually?

Glowing tower

The reasons are divers, so let’s take a look at them.

1. Your camera can’t read your mind

The autofocus can be as good as it gets, but it can never really know what you try to take a photo off. You can help it by choosing your focus point, or use a single one all the time, but still, it will never be 100% accurate with focusing on what you want.

2. Your camera can’t see in the dark

Ok, neither can you, but you really don’t have to. When focusing in dark spaces or late at night, you need just a small area with a little light in it, to be able to focus onto. A single street lamp in the distance is mostly enough to get a sharp photo.

3. Your camera can’t focus on very small objects

Each camera has only a certain number of focus points. If you taking a wast landscape, or a your scene is mostly dark, and there are only few light sources, it’s hard to tell the camera to focus exactly on one of them. Or for instance you shooting a night sky, and want to get a good focus on the stars (I found out that just focusing on infinity, never really worked for me). With manual focusing, you can just choose a bright star and focus onto that.

4. To maximize the DOF (Depth of field)

If you wan’t or need to use a bigger aperture, using manual focusing can really help you adjust your DOF. You can really select the subject and have no fear that it will be out of focus.
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5. To keep the same focus

This is especially if you shot HDR, time-lapse, or have a different reason to need multiple shots to be combined. If you use manual focus, you will never have to fear, that your camera will focus on something different in the middle of a sequence.

6. You want to do focus stacking

Focus stacking is a way, where you take photos with different focus, to get a bigger DOF from a combination of them. This is just such a pain to do with autofocusing. Especially if you just need two shots, one for background and one for the foreground. With manual focusing, you can do this very quickly, just by turning the focus wheel :)

When not to focus manually?

Of course there are situations, when manual focusing it not the way to go. Mostly this is when you try to get a moving subject. It’s really hard to focus manually then. Still, with a lot of practice, one can do also that. If you can estimate the DOF, so you subject is completely in focus, you can focus manually and take all the further shots without refocusing. If you taking photos of something that is really fast changing (for instance fireworks), not having to refocus, will get you many more photos.

How to focus manually?

So now you know why you should be focus, now let’s looks how to do it.

1. Switch your lens to manual focus

This one is really important. First of all, you don’t want to damage your lens. The better (pricier) lenses can be focused manually even with the auto-focus on, but on some this would damage your focusing motor. Also you don’t want the autofocus to change your hard work.

2. Use live view

It’s really hard to use manual focusing without a live view. You can of course do it through the viewfinder, but you will never be so accurate. What you need to do is go into live view and zoom into the exact area you want to focus onto. Most cameras allow for a 10 times zoom, which grants you the ability to focus very accurately. Just be gentle when using longer lenses, as every touch will make it shake, so making the focusing harder.

Live view
Normal live view
Live view
10x zoom

3. Focus 1/3rd into the scene

This is a basic rule of DOF. If you focus on something, than 1/3rd of DOF will be in front of it, 2/3rd’s behind it. Witch this in mind, of course one needs to focus 1/3rd into the scene. You don’t have to be really exact, as long as you are not going for a very shallow DOF. With a little practice and experimenting, finding the 1/3rd spot is a madder of seconds for every scene.

Light sources

4. Focus on light sources

This is mostly for late night scenes and night sky. You just need a single light source to be able to focus. You can even create your own using a flashlight. Just find the light source on your screen and focus onto it. Than try to refocus, while looking at the shape of the light source. The smaller it is, the sharper your shot will be. To say it differently, if you see a bokeh, you are not focused correctly.

To the right you have an example of a scene, where your camera would have a very hard time to fins something to focus on, but manually it’s done in seconded.

5. Remember the basic rules of DOF

To make this easier for you, always remember the basic rules of DOF. The smaller aperture, the further away the subject and the wider the lens, the bigger DOF you will get. So especially with landscape shots, if you are using a wide angle lens, once you focus on anything just few meters away, you will get everything in focus. You don’t need to know the exact DOF for every setup, but knowing if you should expect a shallow or a deep DOF is always good.

6. Practice manual focusing

On every camera, there is a certain order of steps (button presses) to get into manual focus. With a little practice one can do those without even needing to look at the camera at all. For instance on my 5D mark II I can do this by pressing the live view, using the joystick to move the zoom square and then press zoom until I get to 10x magnification. If you doing multiple shots after each other, you don’t even need to leave the live view between shots.

Using a DOF calculator to help you focus

One way to be more exact with the focusing, is using a DOF calculator. There can be found many of them for every mobile platform. A DOF calculator, is a piece of software, that based on the focal length, aperture and focus distance, can tell you exactly, how much DOF you will get. You can use it easily, to determine the focusing distance, if your goal is a specific DOF.

DOF Calculator
DOF Calculator on Android
DOF Calculator
DOF Calculator Pro on Windows phone

I don’t think it’s that useful in the field, as it take too much time, but it’s a great tool to look at, to get better familiarized with one’s own lenses. Just enter the values, and then just change the focusing distance, to see how the DOF changes.

That’s all on Manual focusing, but feel free to ask if you have any questions.

The position of the sun is very important to photographers. You may be wondering why, so we will take a look at it in this post, together with ways of determining the location for a specific place. Btw. most of this is also applicable for the moon :)

The setting sun in Bratislava

Why you should know where the sun is?

There are many reasons for this, and here are a few of them:

1. To include it in your composition

Having sun in the photo makes for a little more complicated edit (the dynamic range of the scene is much bigger), but it also makes for a very interesting photo. You all know the shots where the sun peaks from behind the hills or from between buildings. You can get shots like that during sunrise and also sunset. The exact position is very important for this, as you need to know where to stand and where the sun will from that position.

2. To know where the sunset/sunrise is

The best colors of the clouds are usually towards the sunrise/sunset, so knowing where it will be is very important. For instance, while shooting from the Eiffel tower, you need to be there earlier to get your spot, without knowing where the sunset will be, you don’t know where to stand at all :)
A sunset lighthouse

3. To capture the golden light

The hour before sunset/after sunrise is called the Golden hour. During this time, the sun can shine with a wonderful golden light (is not every day, depends on the atmospheric condition). It can give a very nice yellow glow to a landscape, and to capture it, you need to know from where the sun will shine from.

4. To get/avoid a specific shadow

If you like to get a specific shadow in you photo, or really avoid one, knowing from where the sun will whine at the time can help. For instance if you are shooting from a high building, that can create an ugly shadow through your photo, just check from where the sun will shine before going there.

5. To get the most from a polarizing filter

If you ever used a polarizing filter, you know that it works best 90 degree from the sun position (so you have the sun on your right or left side). If you want to get a nice blue sky, check the location first.

How to find the position?

As there are many devices you can use, and which you may have handy, let’s look at almost all of them.

On your PC/MAC

My favorite on the PC is the website www.suncalc.net. It’s an overlay on google maps data, is very easy to use and very fast. If one only wants a quick location check on the sun, this is the fastest way to get it.

There was a dedicated desktop app The Photographers ephemeris, which is being retired in a month, but you can still use the WebApp version from your browser. It gives a little more info than Suncalc, but in my experience it’s slower most of the times. Of course if one wants to use the same thing on every platform, this is the best solution, as they also provide a iOS and Android app.

On Windows 8 you can also use an app like the Golden Hour, which looks nice and simple, but it can only show the sunset/sunrise position, so the usefulness is limited.

SunCalc
SunCalc
The Photographers Ephemeris
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
Golden Hour
Golden Hour

On Windows Phone

I currently use a Windows Phone based phone, and the App for sun position I use is the Sun Tracker. It gives you the position of the sun, together with a lot of photography specific information, like the blue hour times. It also provides a augmented reality filter, where you can follow the position of the sun on the sky.

Sun Tracker
SunTracker
Sun Tracker
SunTracker

On Android/iOS

For Android and iOS you can go with the same software as on a desktop, the Photographers ephemeris, or you can try a different software, like the SunDroid (on Android). I personally prefer SunDroid, as it gives more information and also includes very nice widgets. Specific for the iPad I also see the LightTrac being quite nice, even if I haven’t used it as I currently don’t use any iOS devices.

I’m not including any links here, as there are different for country app stores, just search for the name and you will find the apps :)

Sundroid
Sundroid
The Photographers Ephemeris
The Photographer’s Ephemeris

So the decision on what to use is your own, the best coherent experience can be found using The Photographers ephemeris, my personal favorite is currently Suncalc.net. I hope some of you will find this useful and if there any questions, feel free to ask.

And one few more photos with the sun in it for you :)
Golden sunset
Sunset at the Neusiedlersee
A Castle Sunset
Sunny side of Paris

You may have noticed, that in the last year I have started using the Oloneo Photoengine for my photos more and more. It makes a great companion to manual blending, as it can be very easy to create a good starting image from it. You can see my favorite things about it in my Oloneo Photoengine review here.

And since I use it so much, I thought I share few tip for it. For what I do, and why I do it. Maybe some of you will find them interesting, or they will motivate you to try Photoengine out :) So here goes.

1. Use edited tiff files instead of RAWs as input.

You may think that using the RAW files as input is great, for providing as much info to the Photoengine as possible, but a 16bit tiff includes all the dynamic range anyway. And what one also can do, is to use a RAW converter of ones choosing, to correct lens problems even before the HDR editing.

What I do before opening files in Photoengine is that I correct the lens distortion, chromatic aberrations and sometimes noise in Lightroom. I also sometime tone down the highlights in the darkest shot, and brighten the shadow in the lightest shot, to make the blending even better. This is because in every HDR program, the smaller the dynamic range, the usually better, more natural, result one gets.

2. Don’t use all exposures

Again one would think that using more is better, but you are not only trying to get a big dynamic range, but also get a nice photo. Especially if you have taken very bright exposures (+2EV and more) including them in the blend can create an overall very bright image, that just looks awful. You can of course correct this by changing exposure and brightness, but just leaving the bright exposure out can make the thing a lot easier. Also, using less exposures will cause less ghosting, if you had any movement in your shots.

Here u see the same brackets with the same settings, just in the first one I used only 3 exposures, in the second one 4.

Photoengine tips
Photoengine tips

 

3. Try a single exposure as input

One would not believe how much detail and dynamic range can be found in a single photo. I like to use this mostly for my fireworks shots, as those are by definition only single exposures. As Photoengine keeps the sharpness of the photo and makes it so easier to brighten the darks, and recover the bright areas. And all that with a single slider.
Photoengine tips
 

4. Take advantage of the contrast sliders

You maybe noticed, there are two contrast sliders in the Oloneo Photoengine. One under High dynamic range tone mapping, the second one under Low dynamic tone. They both work a little differently. The first one works in conjunction with the Auto-contrast, and you just tweak how strong the auto-contrast is. The second one is a straight up contrast adjustment. I you change just one of those, you will not see any difference, but once you also change the strength, you will see it. I suggest trying both out, as I find a combination of both give me usually the best result.

5. Careful about the Detail Strength

It can be really tempting to just add a lot of detail strength to a photo, but I don’t use it at all. If you really feel that you need more detail, try adding it, but just a little. The combination of changing strength and contrast is usually enough, and the photo retains the original sharpness and natural feel.

Here is an example quickly the strength can be too much.
Photoengine tips
 

6. Use batch processing when editing panoramas

In my tutorial for HDR panoramas, I mentioned that I first create the panorama blends, and then do the HDR editing. But this approach does not work great for bigger panoramas, as no computer is able to work with such huge files without any issues. In those cases I prefer to use an opposite approach. First I export all the files as 16-big tiffs (of course with lens corrections already applied). I do the processing of the first series in Photoengine, and save the settings as a preset. Then I apply the same settings to all other series using the batch processing that is included in Photoengine and use the result for the panorama creation.
Photoengine tips
 

7. Try the natural mode

The natural mode is just a single check box, but it can make the result so much better. What it does, is that it tones down all over-saturated areas of the photo, making them more believable. Sometimes is better just to decrease the saturations, but that does not always ends with the same result.

Here you can see what a difference a single click can make, and no, I didn’t add any saturation for effect.

Photoengine tips
Photoengine tips

 

8. Create multiple version to be blended later

Another way to get the most from Oloneo Photoengine, is to created two (or more) different versions of the same photo. For instance, like in the photo from the yesterdays post, I created a darker version, from only 4 exposures and a lighter version, from all 5 exposures. Like this, I had a nice sky in the darker version and a nice foreground in the darker version. All I needed after that was just to blend them together.

These are all the tips for now, but of course there is much more to Oloneo Photoengine, and I will revisit this topic again later :)

I have been using the Magic lantern firmware for over two years now, and as I still get questions about it here and there, I thought I make a post about what I thing about it what what I use the most with it. So lets start :)

For those who don’t know what Magic lantern is, it’s a custom firmware, that is made by a third party for Canon cameras. It add a huge amount of functionality, while leaving the core firmware in tact. It accomplished this by working completely from the memory card. That actually the first great thing about it. To disable it, you just use a memory card without the firmware files on it. It’s so easy.

So what do I think about it? It’s just great. The number of new functions is staggering, the stability is great, it’s easy to use, and it even remembers your settings if you take the card out of the camera.

Magic lanternI was quite scared before installing it first time, as probably everyone who uses it does. The camera gear is not cheap, and anything that can brake it is of course scary. But I still haven’t found a single instance where Magic lantern damaged a camera, and of course I had not problems also :)

Actually in the two years I’ve been using it, I found only two problems. Sometimes if I remove the memory card too quickly, I have to remove and reinsert the battery to restart the camera. The second issue is that it sometimes not consistent with exposure time when bracketing (eg. two sets with the same settings result with 8s, 16s, 32s exposures for the first set and 8s, 15s and 32s for the second set, for no apparent reason)

But that’s all for the negatives, so lets look at things what I use and why I’m still using it.

1. No 30 second limit

If you ever tried bracketing on a camera, you may noticed, that the longest exposure are always 30s or under. Even if they should be longer. For instance if you took a 10s shoot, and wanted a +2EV from that, it still would be only 30s, not 40s as it should be. Magic lantern removes this limitation, and you can go as high up as you need. This of course does not mean you can set up normal shot for more than 30s, but only that brackets that need to be higher, are. Still this on it’s own makes Magic lantern worth it :)

Magic lantern

2. More brackets available

Most cameras allow only for limited brackets in the auto-bracketing mode. Magic lantern allows for 9, or even auto-detect (where the firmware takes a photo, and based on that photos exposure will take more darker/lighter photos to get the full dynamic range). It also allows for more defined differences, where you can choose the steps from 0.5 to 5EV. There are two other ways to get this, either by using a Promote Remote or doing the steps manually, but none of them beat the convenience of the firmware.

3. White balance detection

I don’t know how good other cameras are, but the auto white balance on my 5D mark II can be absolutely horrible. This is where Magic lantern can come in and choose a manual white balance. From my experience, it very accurate most of the time. Of course one has to remember to do the metering, but it’s really worth it.

4. Long exposures

Another great thing is, that you can specify any long exposure you want, without needing to go the bulb + remote route. This makes it so much easier and more convenient.

Magic lantern

5. Build in intervalometer

Some cameras have it, some don’t. Again one can do this using a advanced remote, but again, it’s much convenient this way. It’s also very easy to set up and use. You can check my fireworks ebook, where I describe how I use it to make taking photos of fireworks easier.

6. Bulb ramping

If you ever wanted to do a time-lapse of a sunset of a sunrise, you know that it can be really hard. You have to predict how the light changes, and either program a remote to do the changes, or do it manually. What magic lantern can do, is take a photo, analyze it, and adjust the settings to get better exposure for the next one. Like this it takes most of the work away form you, and you can focus more on stuff like composition :). Of course one needs to de-flicker the result, but that’s needed even for a normal timelapse. You can check out the short video here, I took with this function.

Here is a timelapse I did using the Magic lantern Bulb ramping.

7. Focus peak

The ones of you familiar with newer cameras maybe use this feature, but for older cameras, Magic lantern is the only way to get it. This is an overlay for the live view mode, where red lines show you what’s in focus in the scene. I don’t use it that much for photos, but it is really helpful for video shooting.

8. One click zoom

This was such an annoyance for me. You know how it is. When you take a photo and you want to check if it is sharp enough, you have to go to the gallery, press zoom, press zoom again, and than press zoom again. It’s so slow. With Magic lantern one can set it up that it zoom in to 100% with one press of the zoom button. It so much faster.

And there are so many more feature in Magic Lantern. But I this is only about the ones I use the most. If you have a camera that supports it (regrettably only Canon) think about giving it a try. It’s just so convenient, just hawing all these features always in the camera.

Here is a video I took showing few of these features, that you may find useful to get into Magic lantern.

 
You can find more information on Magic lanter and download it on their web page: http://www.magiclantern.fm/

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