“Not enough contrast, could be sharper!”


Hi Folks,

At the recent Northern Ireland Photographic Association (NIPA) ‘Beginners Competition’ the feedback on images that were not selected for shortlisting were:

“Not enough contrast”

“Not sharp”

When we show members photos up on the big screen and ask for and offer feedback, one of the most often tweaks made in Faststone Image viewer is to increase the contrast. This is simply done with a slider and almost everyone agrees that simply adding some more contrast really improves many an image.

Sharpness, on the other hand, is completely different! It reminds me of the Irishism of a tourist asking the local guy for directions – and is told, “Well if I was going there, I wouldn’t have started from here!”

You may not realise it, but sharpness is actually all about increasing the contrast of edges! I bet that has got you thinking

So where do we start? I can think of a number of starting points: the first being buy a tripod and use it. Learn how to use the self timer or wireless trigger with mirror up. Find out what is the sweet spot of your lens, in many cases it’s f/8 or f/11.

The second starting point; for hand held photography, is the basic knowledge of what I call the ‘holy trinity’ – of speed, aperture and ISO. Every photography must know this!

Briefly; this is the knowledge, gained from practice and experience, of what speed and at what focal length you can hand-hold your camera and still get a sharp image. This will change from lens to lens. Lenses with image stabilisation really do offer two stops leeway. On my 18-200 stabilised lens I know I can get away with, or go as low as 1/15s at 18mm and 1/125 at 200mm for a landscape with nothing moving in my frame. But I have practised this, often braced against something. Clearly; if something is moving in the frame and you want to get it sharp, you will have to up your speed accordingly. This is were the basic understanding of the ‘holy trinity’ comes in; knowing when and how to open up your lens, or increase the ISO, or both, to get the speed you need.

The third starting point, which comes after one and two above being properly applied, is taking the image in raw. If you don’t know how to sharpen a raw image properly for the desired end product, print or screen, then you might be better off taking in raw and jpg. The jpg will be sharpened in camera, the raw isn’t.

In our camera club we often advise new members to take in their photos in raw, as it allows so much more leeway in post production. But I suspect that, while this is true, many new members to photography and especially members new to computers may not have the knowledge, skills or experience to sharpen a raw image. So perhaps we should be advising them to take raw and jpg? Work on the already sharpened jpg and in years to come, when they have more experience and as the software improves and makes things easier, they can always re visit the raw file. I have often revisited my raw files and I know many other camera club members do the same.

Unsharp Mask (USM) is complex and for a novice, easily overdone. The Digital Photo type magazines often offer a step by step guide, saying apply a ‘Unsharp Mask of x.x.x’, but don’t explain why these settings work for one image and a different set of USM works for another. There are books written on this subject! However, products like Lightroom, offer sliders to adjust ‘vibrance’ (USM) and ‘structure’ (High Pass) to make things easier. These adjust the edge contrast, either in mid tones or globally.

For example: the raw image will need what is known as ‘capture sharpening’. ‘Lightroom’ can identify your camera make, sensor and lens and do a really good job of initial ‘capture sharpening’ and lens alignment, globally. ‘Dxo’ and ‘Capture One’ can do the do the same, sort of automatically, but also globally. I use Capture NX and have a batch process, or .set file that allows me to apply ‘capture sharpening’ based on what type of Nikon camera I am using. However, with CNX I can apply the ‘capture sharpening’ selectively

Within an image you may have areas that may require a different approach. Do you want to sharpen fine texture or coarse texture? Different raidi within the USM, that really needs to be applied selectively, rather than globally. Or perhaps using a ‘high pass’ instead, or in support to USM? This were Lightroom, the adjustment brush and ‘vibrance’ and ‘structure’ come in. (I don’t use Lightroom, but I know many of you do, and so I thought I should give it a plug, rather than go on about Capture NX )

Finally; for now, from raw you have to consider where the image is going. There are different approaches to sharpening for glossy paper, compared to matte paper (matte paper absorbs more ink) and a yet another different approach for web or projected image.

Food for thought? The difficulty is, of course, that everyone uses different software! As always, feedback is most welcome!

Wednesday 19th October 2011 – Clubnight


Winter has come early.

I thought most members had opted out of the cold conditions judging by the turnout by 8.00pm, however  gradually folks started drifting in.

Paul was there first and quickly followed by Darren, both new to the club.    I spent a little bit of time explaining the virtues of RAW shooting and how he can use Faststone Image Viewer to preview and do basic adjustments.   I also explained the principles of JPG compression and demonstrated on Photoshop Elements, the effect that adjustments on JPGs had on an image.  This was shown using the Levels histogram and seeing the gaps developing as additional adjustments were made.

Darren brought his portable Hard Disk with images which we as a group carried out our usual critique.   Meanwhile Julie and the other ladies gathered in a huddle plotting what they were to do on their show on Friday Evening.   Rumour has it that its a rerun of Calendar Girls.  Vivid imaginations needed!!

Jack, whom we had missed out last Wednesday night, brought his AV, Walk in Mountstewart.   Jack slipped back into ProShow to do this with the excuse that he found the layer effects and animation  easier than in Pictures to Exe.   We were treated to a very clever exhibitions of animation with monkey statues, towers sinking into the lake and falling trees.   It was warmly appreciated by those present as he gave us a detailed explanation of how he achieved the effects.  Well done Jack,  well worth waiting for.

I took the opportunity to run my recently completed AV entitles, Cathedrals of St Petersburg.   Seeing it on the big screen, I spotted several things that I wanted to change in it.

Angus arrived with his laptop and crouched away at the back exporting his first AV onto a memory stick.  However when I attempted to run it, we found that he would have needed to include his images in the same folder with it.   It was run on Windows media player.

I advised him to download the trial version of Pictures to Exe from http://www.WNSoft.com or ww.beckhamdigital.co.uk.  Although it is a trial version it no longer had a 10 slide limit.  The only drawback is that it has a banner across the bottom of the display screen.  We can certainly live with that.   In that software he will really gain experience and create stand-alone exe files for PC.

By the end of the evening, none of the ladies had divulged the content of Friday night.   I’ll get some photos of it anyway and send some to the Spectator together with John’s blog.

Friday 19th August 2011 – Clubnight


Well, it looks as though the call for a supply of biscuits was heard.  We now have a nice selection.

Trevor was an early arrival tonight together with his camera.  Apparently he has just come back from a cruise on the Island Escape in the Mediterranean.  I saw him unloading quite a few memory cards from his camera bag.

He gave me one for display.  These were straight out of the camera NEF raw files, mostly of his short day trip to Monte Carlo where he was sussing out a new apartment!  On the club computer we use Freestone Image Viewer which is a free download.  One of the nice features is that it can directly display RAW files.    Trevor had a good range of shots of the harbour, the Royal Palace and square, and of course the cathedral where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace are laid to rest.    Trevor fell into the trap that we all do irrespective of experience, that is, after shooting on a high ISO in a dark church at say 1600, we step outside and continue shooting without resetting the ISO.   Our advice to him was to keep the histogram displayed and regularly ‘chimp’ the viewfinder and look at the histogram.  This will tell immediately if the image is very overexposed.

Nigel suggested that some evening we should do an in-depth tutorial on Lightroom.  Some of Trevor’s shots would be useful to illustrate the power of the software.   Later on we saw some of his shots of the Vatican City.  At the best of times, this is a difficult subject to shoot well.

We were treated to another of Nigel’s Fotomagico based AVs.  Music by J S Bach accompanied a lovely presentation.

Velia gave us a view of the country house she was renovating including some of the surrounding countryside.  There was a very interesting photo of a post planter attachment for a tractor.  Very useful.  She also showed us her vintage rust laden JCB in the undergrowth, apparently bought as a plaything.  The ultimate Tonka Toy!!

During the evening Deborah and her mum, May crept in during the darkness.   We gave them both a great welcome and  very glad to see May back on her feet and looking so well, even though she has still continuing treatment.

Members were reminded that the opening evening of the new season begins with members holiday AVs (alternatively photos).