Canon SX40HS vs. Nikon P500. Feature fight and IQ.

Okay, it is way too soon for a new camera. I seriously try to limit myself to one new camera every two years. My first real “super-zoom” or “bridge” camera was the Sony H9, and I fell in love with the articulated LCD, the macro capability, and the zoom range…the flexibility of the camera…and how much fun it was to use. On the other hand the image quality (IQ) was only so so…aggressive noise reduction and jpeg compression resulted in images with a heavy water color effect. Fine details were too often smeared together into blocks of stippled color…especially grass, tree foliage, and skin tones…and there was a general lack of sharpness in architectural details like shingle roofs and brickwork. In normal viewing and smaller prints the defects were not obvious, but I knew they were there. The color was great, the features were second to none, and I had a lot of fun with the camera, but I knew I was giving up IQ in exchange.

While I, like practically everyone who owned one, really hoped Sony would upgrade the firmware to address the IQ issue, they never did. Eventually I replaced the Sony H9 with the Sony H50. While still not great IQ, it was a definite improvement over the H9…kinda what the H9 should have been…and the zoom had grown significantly…which made the camera even more flexible and more fun to use.

Still, IQ! After a lot of research on review sites, on flickr, etc., I replaced the Sony H50 with the Canon SX20IS. Now that was a camera. IQ was a clear step above the Sony’s and the camera itself felt solid and business-like by comparison. And, again, longer zoom, more flexibility, more fun.

However, along the way there, I bought a Canon SD4000is as a digiscoping camera (to use behind the eyepiece of a spotting scope for long distance imaging). It is just a little P&S…pocket sized…but it has a 10mp Back-illuminated CMOS sensor. It has decent IQ, great continuous shooting mode (4 frames per second), and amazing high ISO performance for a P&S. I began to think it might be worth looking at one of the long-zoom cameras coming on the market with BiCMOS sensors, and significantly longer zooms. I was thinking of flight and grab shots of birds, for one thing. Not something the Canon did well. Then too the BiCMOS sensors make possible full HD video capture and all kinds of multiple shot image processing effects. Again, research mode, but as the cameras were very new there was not much out on them. Three looked possible. The Fuji HS20 with a 16mp BiCMOS sensor and a maximum reach of 720mm, the Sony HX100v, with a similar 16mp sensor and 810mm reach, and the Nikon Coolpix P500 with a 12mp BiCMOS sensor and a 36x reach: 23mm-810mm.

At the time, I eliminated the Canon SX30is, despite its 30x zoom, since its 14mp CCD sensor limited the continuous shooting mode to less than a frame per second, and early reports indicated that its IQ was actually not quite as good as the SX20is.

I bought the Fuji HS20 and really tried to like it. However the IQ was such a disappointment, compared to the Canon SX20is, that I returned it. It was, at least in my sample, as bad as the Sony H9. Water colors? We got water colors! (They say, on the Fuji forums, that shooting at half resolution and tweaking the settings gives much better results, but I was not up for that kind of messing about.) The Sony was not yet available anywhere…so, since I had a workshop on Point & Shoot for Wildlife coming right up, I bought the Nikon P500 the day before I left for Florida.

I really like the Coolpix P500 (see my various reviews and appreciations via the links below).

Review vs Fuji HS20 and Canon SX20is.

Acadia From under and Umbrella (low light)

Shooting the Clouds

In-Camera Processing on the P500

P500 does the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens: practicing macro

P&S for Wildlife: Superzooms

P&S for Wildlife: Wicked Warblers.

P&S for Wildlife does Bugs.

It is, again, just a lot of fun to use, and the feature set is pretty amazing. 36x zoom starting at super wide (23mm), great macro mode (Close-UP), night landscape that stacks exposures for less noise and greater dynamic range, a really useful daylight dynamic range extension (Active-D Lighting), auto HDR that works sometimes, 7 fps continuous (maybe 5 fps at full resolution), and very good high ISO performance for a compact. Great camera. Great for macro, great for landscape, great for wildlife on the move and at reasonable distances. I have taken some of my favorite images with it…and though I am aware of its limitations by now…it is a camera I planned to live with for at least its 2 year term.

But then Canon released the SX40HS. I read a few early posts on the forums, and one glowing comparison review with included both the Nikon P500 and the Sony HX100V. The reviewers hailed the Canon as breakthrough in IQ…but their tests were lab based, using resolution targets and color real world comparisons. Still, 24-840mm equivalent zoom. 12mp BiCMOS sensor with lots of Canon innovations. Fastest image processing on the planet. A few less features than the Nikon, but a similar feature set. 10 fps. Even though it is too early by 1.5 years, I was sorely tempted.

It is that IQ thing. While I am generally satisfied with the IQ on the Nikon, I am becoming more critical in my old age, and I am aware of some softness and lack of fine detail in the Nikon images. Not fatal. But there. Then too, the colors in the Nikon images are just a bit off…for one thing, the sky blue is not quite right, and since I shoot a lot of landscapes with sky, that matters. A camera like the Coolpix P500 but with slightly better IQ would be my dream camera.

Then too, I realized the limitations of the Nikon’s Image Stabilization system early on. Even though the SX20is only reached 560mm equivalent, it gave a much more stable image than the Nikon at the same reach. And the Nikon at 810mm was marginal at best. It was especially obvious in movie mode. And, according to some critics, the moving sensor IS in the Nikon degrades the image more than the Canon’s lens based optical stabilization does. 840mm with Canon optical image stabilization. That could be awesome.

I held out for the better part of a week…but, you know, photography is a big part of who I am…not what I do for a living…but who I am as a person. And I was, at that point, in over 3000 people’s circles on Google+, largely on the strength of my images (over 5000 at the moment, a very modest achievement since there are photographers on there with 30,000 plus…but still my own…as they say). I finally figured, well, why not. I can order an SX40HS from Amazon and give it try against the Nikon P500, and see for myself. At least I will get a review out of it.

So…to it!

Once more, the Canon SX40HS feels like a real camera when compared to the more lightly constructed Coolpix. It fills the hand and has a solid weight. There is a downside of course. It is significantly heavier to carry than the Nikon. The controls feel polished and durable as well, which is also a change from the Coolpix. The feature set is slightly more limited than the Coolpix (more on specific lacks as you read on), but in general it has everything I need, and much that I will never use (just as the Nikon did).

But the real tale is in the IQ. Careful real world comparison shots with the Nikon P500 and the Canon SX40HS under good daylight shooting conditions show that the reviewers were right. The SX40HS has, hands down, better IQ than the Nikon…in most situations considerably better IQ. And the image stabilization, while still not magic, is everything I had hoped it would be. You can shoot hand held HD video at 840mm…and that is impressive!

Comparison shots follow. All are straight from the camera or comparison crops straight from the camera. iContrast turned on for the Canon, and Active D-Lighting turned on for the Nikon (dynamic range enhancement). Canon always on the left, Nikon on the right. Most images are linked to the original file, so you can view it as large as you like. You might want to download.


Just your general scenic (and, no, I would not have put my shadow in…but these are just for comparison.) Note the slight difference in sky color…with the Nikon leaning toward Robin’s Egg, and the Canon just slightly bluer, and more finely graduated. Look a the detail in the far tree line. Look at the grasses in the marsh. It is easy to see in the bar that separates the two bodies of water. Both cameras show the effects of the small sensor, but the Canon pushes the boundaries of what is possible, showing acceptable (imho) detail even at distance, while the Nikon smears over much.

Here are crops from the originals. I was, honestly, surprised that there was this much difference.


And here you have some architectural detail. Both shots are at maximum zoom: 840mm equivalent field of view on the Canon, and 810mm equivalent on the Nikon. You can view them at full resolution by clicking the images, or I have provided some crops.



The Nikon has, hands down, one of the best macro modes I have ever used. Close-Up mode auto sets the zoom to 32mm equivalent, which provides maximum image scale and a comfortable working distance (2 cm). The Canon, on the other hand, can focus to zero centimeters at 24mm equivalent, but jumps to 11.8 inches at any longer focal length. You can reach the same image scale with the Canon as the Nikon, but you have to get much closer, which can be a problem when the camera gets in the way of the light. Still, the Canon shows a clear, if not as obvious, advantage in IQ…sharper, with more detail.

I also enjoy using what might be called telephoto macro. With a small sensor camera the long end of the zoom, from its closest focus distance, can provide a bokeh similar to a larger sensor camera and a conventional macro lens.


The difference between the two cameras here is that the Canon reaches 4.5 feet in normal program or auto without turning on macro (in fact it gets no closer than that in macro at the long end of the zoom). In order to reach tele-macro distances with the Nikon you do have to set it to Close-Up mode and over-ride the auto zoom setting.

One final comparison. Since grab and flight shot of birds was a primary interest in my purchase decisions, here is a very cooperative Song Sparrow with both cameras at maximum zoom. No sharpening. Straight from the camera and cropped from full frame.

While, as I say, I have not been really dissatisfied with the IQ of the Nikon, these, and other, tests have convinced me that the Canon SX40HS does indeed set a new standard for IQ in its class.

In addition, I like the overall color rendering better in the Canon than the Nikon. The images just look more natural to me.

I thought I might really miss the Active D-Lighting on the Nikon, especially since past experience with Canon’s iContrast has left me underwhelmed…however the new processor in the SX40HS, along with the new sensor, seems to have improved iContrast as well. The Canon handles full range landscapes with sky with ease, producing very natural results even where there is deep shade in the foreground. And, as with D-Lighting in the Nikon, iContrast can be applied as in-camera processing after the image has been saved to the card…especially useful for opening shadows, and perhaps a bit more effective than D-Lighting in the Nikon in that it leaves the sky tones alone.

Low light, high ISO performance is one of the features of the BiCMOS sensors. Both the Nikon P500 and the Canon SX40HS provide what only a year ago would have been amazing high ISO performance for a small sensor camera. In comparison testing, the Canon again has the edge, at most ISOs, but only by a small margin. I actually prefer the 3200 ISO performance of the Nikon but either is acceptable. The days when you had to keep your superzoom locked on ISO 100 to guarantee good results are gone. Either of these cameras is safe on auto ISO, and you will excellent results right up through 1600.

The Canon SX40HS in particular makes use of this fact to keep apertures considerably smaller in Program mode than they were in the SX20is. I had to use Landscape mode a lot in the SX20, since the default f-stop in Program was in wide open (it was f4 in Landscape). In the SX40HS ISO is shifted up at need to give more reasonable f-stops. I like this!

ISO 800


ISO 1600


Besides a better Macro mode, the Nikon’s implementation of rapid continuous shooting is also superior. On the P500, when you select Continuous via the button on the top of the camera you have several useful options. You can shoot at about 7 frames per second in Medium resolution (9mp…maybe 5 fps in full resolution) for up to 5 frames, or you can shoot in at about 2.5 fps for as long as you want to (and there are several additional high speed modes). On the Canon the most obvious Continuous mode gives you 2.4 frames per second for as long as you want. To access the true high speed burst you have to set it in the Scene modes and there is, as far as I can tell, no way to set a shortcut. Once set, you have 8 full resolution shots at 10 fps, with very limited control over any other settings. On the plus side, recovery time is much more rapid than with the P500, so you are ready for your next burst.

The Canon does have a Sports mode right on the dial that focuses continuously and tracks moving subjects, but is not much use, as it is limited to about 1 fps.

Both cameras, as I already mentioned, have a wealth of features beyond this outline. I have not yet experimented with Night Landscape on the Canon, or most of the Scene modes, or most of the effects, etc. Many of them I never will get to. :)

Finally, one more word about image stabilization. This is the SX40HS, not the SX40IS as it would have been if it had been a direct descendent of the SX20IS and the SX30IS. The H stands for Hybrid, and Canon points out that the image stabilization works automatically to adjust for your shooting style and the subject matter. All I can say is that it works, and works well. There is simply no comparison between the P500’s IS and the Canon’s HS. And it works while shooting video. Here is a short clip at 840mm equivalent field of view. I wandered a bit at the start, but even so, there is none of the uncontrolled jitter and bounce that you associate with high magnification video. Very, very impressive. And, of course, it also makes hand held shots possible at much lower shutter speeds and longer zooms than you have any right to expect. Win!

Hand held at 840mm. Carolina Wren, Chester VA

Like I say…oh rats…I am going to have to keep the Canon SX40HS. I have not tested every superzoom bridge camera currently out there, but I feel confident in saying that the Canon SX40HS sets the standard for the class. I have collected some sample images, fully processed in Lightroom for presentation, on my WideEyedInWonder site here. It is as much fun as any bridge camera, and offers image quality and high ISO performance that is nothing short of amazing in a small sensor camera.

Now if I can just figure out what to do with a perfectly fine Nikon P500?

Posted in Uncategorized | 44 Comments

P&S4Landscape does the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Practicing Macro and Landscape

In the two years since we last visited, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Maine has continued its steady development. The main campus and visitor center of the gardens first opened to the public in 2007, after 16 years of development. In 2009, just before our first visit, they added the Lerner Garden of the 5 Senses, and in 2010 they opened the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden. Along the way there they started development of the Hanley Hillside Garden and the Giles Rhododendron and Perennial Garden at the far end of Birch Allée. All told, there are 248 acres of property under development.

Though it is far out of the way, by most folks standards, tucked well off the main road, out on one of mid-coast Maine’s many narrow peninsulas, in the tiny tourist village of Boothbay Maine (just up the road from the even more touristy Boothbay Harbor), this is a world-class botanical garden, professionally designed, developed, and maintained. The history of how it came to be where and what it is, is fascinating, and well worth a read on the CMBG site.

Our visit this year was on a somewhat overcast, but still fairly bright, summer morning…making for mostly excellent light for macro and close-up work (due to the lack of sharp shadows), but a real challenge whenever the sky was in the image (since it wanted to go completely white).

I am still learning the Nikon Coolpix P500. At the CMBGs I was experimenting with new Program settings or both wide angle and telephoto landscapes: Active D-Lighting and Optimize Image both set to Normal. With those settings, the Coolpix managed to maintain a good deal of detail in the sky most of the time…I was impressed. The shot above was later in the day when there was actually more sun and a little color in the sky, but the shot below shows the good effects of the Active-D Lighting. When I first use the camera I set Optimize Image to Vivid, but I am finding that the images respond to Lightroom processing better with OI set to Normal.

For macro, I continue to use the Close Up Scene Mode, as I find that even if I override the automatic 32mm equivalent field of view zoom setting set by the mode, I still get faster and more accurate macro focus in Close Up mode than I do by setting Macro in the focus settings. I also, as I have mentioned before, suspect there is some special processing going on the Close Up mode that is not part of the general Program mode.

At the CMBGs I found myself using the long of the zoom in Close Up mode quite a bit. The longer zoom setting throws the backgrounds more out of focus, which often centers attention on the flowers (insects, mammals, etc.). It is also much easier, often, to work from a distance…and, of course, sometimes it is simply not possible to reach the subject any other way.

The shots that follow were at longer zoom settings: the first two at 403mm equivalent field of view, and the last one at 499mm.

I still used the optimum 32mm automatic zoom setting for many shots as well. It requires that you be able to get close, but produces excellent results.

And here are a couple of examples of a shots that could not have been made without the long zoom.

The amount of design that has gone into the the CMBGs is simply amazing. The new Children’s Garden is a case in point. Who could not be delighted by grass roofed (and blueberry roofed) buildings behind white picket fences, with each picket a cat? Tree houses? Wigwams? A pond with boats from Wind-in-the-Willows and floating lily flowers. The boggy corner with carnivorous plants? A vegetable garden right out of Peter Rabbit?

Shooting something like the Children’s Garden shows off the strength of the long-range zoom on the P500 (or any other super-zoom P&S). The images above, all taken within a relatively shot time and relatively close together, are at equivalent fields of view of: 32mm, 53mm, 32mm, 23mm, 68mm, 100mm, 405mm, 23mm, and 46mm. There is nothing as flexible as super-zoom P&S.

I often wonder why Nikon chose to limit the low ISO setting to 160 on the P500, but one advantage is that the camera is able to maintain relatively small apertures and relatively fast shutter speeds at its base ISO even in relatively dark surroundings. The Giles Rhododendron and Perennial Garden is in deep forest and well shaded all day…especially so on an overcast day. The following shots are all at the base ISO of 160, and they certainly show as little noise as my Canon SX20IS at 80, and I know the Canon would have attempted all these shots at the base setting…larger apertures and slower shutter speeds.

Finally, the grounds at the CMBG are not all groomed and landscaped. Below the gardens, between the Hillside Gardens and the river, there is a large section of undisturbed forest with trails, where you can, in season, find native wildflowers and plants of mid-coast Maine. Natural grasses, ferns, and arrowroot frame this small steam, and below is Canada Anomie. These are the trails you would take to find Lady Slipper in May and June, and to discover occasional views of the river.

Perhaps because I was switching between macro and landscape modes (in my brain as well as in camera) I found myself using the LCD a lot more than I generally do. Most of these shots were framed with the LCD.

This is, of course, only a small sampling of the images I took at the CMBG. For the full set visit WideEyedInWonder. You might also be interested in the set from our 2009 visit, taken with the Sony DCS H50 super-zoom P&S (on a much brighter, sunny, day).

Posted in Active D-Lighting, bridge camera, close up, flowers, garden, inspiration, instruction, macro, Nikon Coolpix P500, super zoom | 3 Comments

In Camera Processing! Nikon Coolpix P500

I have never been a fan of in camera processing, but I have to admit, if the Nikon Coolpix P500 is any indication, in camera processing has come a long way.

There are two kinds of in camera processing. What happens before the image is converted to jpeg, and what can happen after the image is already converted and written to your card.

A Back-illuminated CMOS sensor is capable of capturing multiple images very rapidly, and this feature is put to work in modes which stack exposures for extended dynamic range, lower noise, or various focus effects, before they are converted to jpeg. The Nikon has both portrait and landscape modes which employ this multiple exposure technology. I have experimented with Night Landscape and with Backlight/HDR mode. Both are able, in the right situations, to produce images which are well beyond any single exposure. This is a Night Landscape shot, hand held, using only the ambient light.

My experiments with Backlight/HDR have not been so successful. It tends, in full daylight, to produce an image which is very flat…maybe I have not hit the right combinations of camera settings or Lightroom techniques to get the most out of it yet. However, recent experiments with the the HDR function at sunset have produced much more satisfying results…capturing the scene much more naturally than a single exposure would ever manage, and requiring much less processing in Lightroom than expected for this type of scene.

This image, while still a bit dark in the foreground, comes as close to capturing the true ambiance of a sunset landscape as I have ever seen out-side of a painting (or some exceptional traditional HDR work).

The image did receive some Recovery (for the sky) in Lightroom, as well as fill light for the foreground, a slight blackpoint adjustment for intensity, Clarity and Vibrance, and a boost in Contrast to overcome the flatness of the HDR effect. If that sounds like a lot of processing, it really is not, for the accumulated effect.

The Nikon also has a number of processing effects that can be applied after the image is written to card, and I decided, just for fun to try some on the image above. The Quick Retouch applies, apparently, some D-Lighting (which brings up the shadows quite effectively), some sharpening and some contrast. The result, which required much less Lightroom processing is below. I actually like it better than the original.

And this image, which I apparently did not even process in the original batch, I really like.

This again uses the Backlight/HDR mode at capture time, Quick Retouch after capture, and then is processed for Clarity, Sharpness, and Intensity in Lightroom. Though still a little dark overall, this is really quite close to the naked-eye ambiance (lightening it more would loose the sky). 

With these experiments behind me I decided to try in camera processing of one of my Backlighted/HDR shots that had not responded well to Lightroom.

Here is a standard Active-D Lighting version, the in camera HDR, and the same shot processed in camera using Quick Retouch…all simply resized with no other post processing.


And here, after processing in Lightroom for Clarity, Sharpness, and Intensity, is the final version, based on the last image above.

I am still experimenting and learning…but today’s Point & Shoot cameras certainly provide a wide range of options for the creative photographer…beyond the basic exposure modes!

Posted in Active D-Lighting, dramatic landscape, hdr, instruction, Nikon Coolpix P500, postprocessing, Quick Retouch, super zoom | 3 Comments

Shooting the Clouds

(This post is adapted and expanded from a recent Pic 4 Today post!)

I had forgotten how big the sky is on the High Plains of Colorado. The Rockies push up amazing clouds that drift (or drive as the case may be) out over the gently rolling prairie.

I spent an afternoon and early evening at a shooting range north of Byers demonstrating spotting scopes (work), and had an ideal opportunity to watch (and, between sessions, capture) the variety of High Plains clouds that you can see in a single day.

The problem with cloud photography is dynamic range. White puffy cloud on a sunny day is so bright that exposing for the highlights in the clouds plunges the landscape below into muddy shadow. Balancing exposure evenly results in a landscape that is just a bit dark, and white highlights in the clouds that are totally burnt-out…so white they have no detail or texture. And exposing for the landscape results in large expanses of featureless white in the clouds. DSLRs have more inherent dynamic range (I am told) then today’s small sensor digital Point & Shoot cameras, but even so, masses of clouds over landscape can be a challenge. Some of today’s P&S cameras, especially ultra-zoom or bridge cameras, and some P&Ss designed for more serious shooters, have built in routines to extend dynamic range that can help with clouded skys (clouded, as opposed to cloudy…by clouded I mean clouds over a sunny landscape…to me a cloudy sky implies overcast, which is a whole other issue :).  Take a look at your owner’s manual to see how to set your camera for extended dynamic range (if available).

The Nikon Coolpix P500 that I am using these days has three levels of dynamic range expansion. Nikon calls it Active D-Lighting. You can set it for Low, Normal, or High and it effects mostly the shadowed or darker areas of the image, adding exposure selectively to those areas.

I generally leave Active D-Lighting set to Normal for almost all my photography, as it does a good job of balancing difficult exposures without any unnatural effects in normal exposures. On my day of cloud photography, however, I was experimenting with the Low setting, as it seemed to preserve the most detail in the clouds.

The shot above, and the one directly below, received only my normal Lightroom processing for Clarity and Sharpness, with minimal adjustments using Fill Light and Blackpoint. For my tastes the landscape, most of which I cropped out to hide the rather ugly buildings of the shooting range, is still a bit dark. I do like the cloud rendering though! The top shot especially, is a very difficult shot, with the wispy clouds and that amount of blue sky showing.

The image below demonstrates another cloud problem. The clouds, especially storm clouds, can themselves have a wide dynamic range…from almost black to pure white. Again, the Low Active D-Lighting setting on the Coolpix did the clouds well, while leaving the landscape just a shade dark.

The shot below really pushes the boundaries. The shaft of sun passing through the dark cloud mass on the upper right, with the bright white clouds framing it, contrasts dramatically with dark blue-grey of storm clouds. Low Active D-Lighting managed to catch the full range in the clouds, but the landscape was considerably too dark and muddy. Cropping out the landscape entirely would have changed the composition, removing all sense of scale…not what I wanted. To save the landscape I used the Graduated Filter Effect in Lightroom. Lightroom allows you to pull a GFE in from any edge (or corner for that matter) of an image and apply Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, Clarity, Saturation, and Sharpness effects gradually, with the darkest (strongest) effects at the trailing edge of the filter and the lightest (weakest) effects at the leading edge. The effect is very like a physical graduated filter over the lens of a DSLR, except that a physical filter only changes exposure.

For this image I pulled the GFE up from the bottom of the image to about 1/3 of the way and added Brightness, Clarity, and Saturation. It also required some selective color adjustment as the cloud shadows were too blue.


In the image below, I used several techniques. Active D-Lighting in camera, then a GFE from the bottom in Lightroom to bring up the foreground. Two areas of burnt-out pure white remained…one on the upper left and one about 1/3rd down and 1/5th in from the top left corner. Pure featureless white. Ugh.

I used another Lightroom tool…the Local Adjustment Brush…to paint on a mask that reduced the Brightness and Exposure of those areas slightly. Doing so brought up at least a little texture, and filled the “holes” in the cloud with something other than white. I know where they are. Can you find them? And did you notice them before I told you they were there?

The next image is perhaps the most difficult from the afternoon.

This is my first attempt, selected from 3 exposures made at the time, using different levels of Active D-Lighting. This shot was the High setting. The clouds are certainly dramatic, but the foreground was seriously dark and without much color at all. Application of a GFE using a combination of Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation, along with some Color Temperature adjustment, brought out some green in the foreground. Because the clouds were full of noise, I had to apply noise reduction over the whole image.

The image below is the same file as the image above…except…I experimented with one of the post-processing features of the Coolpix P500. In addition to the Active D-Lighting that is applied at the time of exposure, the Coolpix has D-Lighting, which is applied to the file after exposure, in the View menus. I applied a Normal level of D-Lighting and resaved the image, then used similar procedures in Lightroom to produce this version.

This version required less noise reduction in Lightroom, maintaining more detail in the foreground, and I was able to bring up the green with less Brightness. I am not certain which I prefer.

Finally I took the Normal Active D-Lighting version, applied Normal D-Lighting in camera, and processed in Lightroom for this version.

There is less drama in the sky, but the foreground looks more natural. Overall, I think I prefer the second image. I would be interested in your opinions.

The shot below is a close up version of the shot above, with Low Active D-Lighting and a GFE in Lightroom to bring up the foreground.

Finally I had to try a panorama. What follows is 4 frames, using the Nikon’s Assisted Panorama, and stitched in PhotoShop Elements 9’s PhotoMerge tool. Assisted Panorama displays 1/3rd of the first shot in semi-transparent form so you can line up the second shot, etc., etc. PhotoMerge does an amazing job of matching, masking, and blending the individual frames, but in this Panorama, the lighting varied quite a bit over the 4 frames. I used a GFE, pulled up diagonally from the bottom left corner in Lightroom to selectively brighten that edge of the resulting pano.

Personally, I love the drama of a big sky with clouds, and today’s sophisticated P&S cameras, with the help of some judicious post processing, make it very possible to catch them in an image.

Posted in bridge camera, clouds, dramatic landscape, editing, inspiration, instruction, Lightroom, Nikon Coolpix P500, panorama, PhotoShop Elements, postprocessing | 1 Comment

Acadia from under an umbrella…

the view from Gorham Mountain. Not quite raining. 4 shot panorama from Sand Beach to Otter Point. Click to enlarge.

The weather, of course, does not always cooperate. My family and I tried to fit a few vacation days into the busy schedules of 5 people…just a quick trip to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park to visit daughters who live and work there (one full time, the other for the summer), and, of course, to do some hiking and photography in our most favorite of National Parks. Thanks to the wonder of internet weather, we knew by the time we left home that we were faced with pretty much rain every day, but the reservations were made, the schedules cleared, the vacation time approved, and we went, despite the weather forecast. It is New England, after all…things can change…things do change…and we can always hope for better than the prediction. Still, I made sure to pack three unbrellas (all I could find).

The Molly Todd at anchor in front of the Bar Harbor Inn. Still a bit of sun.

Hope was not, this time, rewarded. We had a few hours of sunlight after arriving, while we had lunch with one daughter, and walked around Bar Harbor, but then the clouds moved in, and it more or less (at times a lot more than less) rained the rest of the visit. So it goes.

Still, I was not about to come home without any new images of Acadia. It was a great opportunity to practice photography from under an umbrella. It is possible. It is simply a matter of juggling the umbrella while handling the camera, often shooting one handed using the LCD to frame, and frequent applications of the micro-fiber cloth to clear raindrops from the lens.

Wild Iris, Wild Gardens of Acadia, Sieur de Mont Springs, Acadia Nat. Park. ISO 400. Raining.

The main issue is exposure. There is not a lot of light in the rain, especially for hand-held photography (and messing about with a tripod and an umbrella in the rain is beyond even my ambitions). It is better these days, with higher ISO performance, and better high ISO performance, even on Point and Shoots. In fact, the base ISO on my newest camera, the Nikon Coolpix P500 superzoom, is 160, and it does very well up to ISO 800. Higher ISOs are coupled with fairly advanced image stabilization in an increasing number of P&Ss, either lens stabilization or sensor stabilization…either works. The combination makes shooting in the rain, even under heavy forest canopy, and even hand-held, much more possible.

One of the delights of Acadia this time of year is the Lupines, which grow wild in yards and fields all over Mt. Desert Island. These are between the Park Loop Road and Great Meadow. I was not the only one photographing them, but I was the only one with an umbrella. The umbrella allowed me to take my time composing, to try more different angles than I would have if I had been constantly in fear of a stray drop shorting out the electronics of the camera, and to generally enjoy the experience more. Of course I still got wet feet, but some sacrifice is generally to be expected for any art’s sake. :)

This shot received some extra attention in Lightroom. I used a Graduated Filter Effect pulled up from the bottom to slightly darken the foreground.

Even where there is sufficient light, and views of the open sky, exposure is difficult. If the sky is visible in the frame, you run the risk of the foreground going way too dark…or the sky comes out as a blank white space. Maintaining detail in rainy clouds and mist, and in the foreground can require extended dynamic range. The Nikon P500 offers Active D-Lighting, which helps to extend the range…but some work in Lightroom with the Fill Light Effect and Blackpoint adjustment is still needed most of the time.

out to sea from the Ocean Path between Thunder Hole and Otter Point. ISO 160 and Active D-Lighting.

the second point is Otter Clifts on Otter Point. Similar exposure to the shot above. Between the Active-D Lighting and some Lightroom work it is possible to attain a reasonable balance of exposure.

One of the benefits of shooting from under an umbrella in the rain is that you tend to focus on what is close to you…and the glitter of the raindrops on everything draws the eye and adds allure to the most common of objects. If you click these images a larger version opens.



These lichen flowers are what you see when you look really close. The soft rain light and the collected water make an interesting macro shot. Or notice the slug in the shot below. I was just shooting the rain slick bark, because the pattern interested me. I actually did not see the slug until post processing.

With everything wet, forest shots have a particularly rich look. Above is Bubble Brook where it flows out of Bubble Pond. And reflective water, under the rain sky, takes on an almost metallic look. As you can see, the rain had paused for a moment here, though I was still carrying my umbrella.

The marshy area at the lower right corner of Jordan Pond.

the Bowl on the trail between Gorham and Champlain, not yet raining, but thinking hard about it.

There were moments, like this one below, where the clouds parted and we saw some blue sky. This patch moved over us, and Jordan Pond, in about 30 minutes and disappeared out to sea. Within an hour it was raining hard again.

On our last morning we hiked, against all common sense, up South Bubble (which you see in the image above at the end of Jordan Pond). It was raining in the parking lot, and we could see the cloud heavy above us, between us and the top of the Bubble. Still, it was our last chance at a hike before the long drive home. Below is the famous view of Jordan Pond from South Bubble, or it would be if not for the cloud in front of it. Notice the Krumholtz in the foreground. A perfect miniature forest. The tall tree there, though a perfectly formed mature specimen, is about a foot small.

So, don’t let a little rain stop you. Dig out that umbrella and see what you can see from under its edge. Even if you are not in Acadia National Park, you might be surprised.

Posted in inspiration, instruction, Nikon Coolpix P500 | 5 Comments

Nikon Coolpix P500, Fuji HS20, vs. Canon SX20IS

This is only a vs. review in the sense that the Canon SX20IS was my current camera when I started looking for something new. I have been using superzoom bridge cameras for several years now…the Sony H9 and H50 in their time, and the Canon, having a lot of fun, and getting satisfying results.

The Canon is a wonderful camera. It has excellent image quality at ISOs up to 200 (especially compared to the two Sonys that came before it), decent image quality at ISOs up to 400, and I love the way it handles in the field. The lens is amazingly sharp. I have been totally happy with it…or almost. The only limits of the camera are 1) a 20x zoom range topping out at 560mm equivalent field of view…there are lots of new superzooms with longer zooms at the telephoto end, and many of them better the Canon’s 28mm wide end too, and 2) no rapid capture to speak of…the fastest you can take images with the SX20IS is .8 frames per second (yes that is point eight!) and that is simply very frustrating when shooting active wildlife. Many of todays’ Back-illuminated CMOS sensor superzooms will shoot 5-11 frames per second. Then too, the new BICMOS cameras shoot full HD video and the Canon is limited to 720p.

I was tempted by the Panasonic FZ100. Five fps and all kinds of image processing modes made possible by the BICMOS…but, at 600mm, its zoom is not significantly longer than the SX20IS’ and it got pretty dismal reviews on image quality.

And of course I had a good long look at the Canon SX30IS, with its 35x zoom extending to 840mm equivalent field of view…but again, image quality reviews were disappointing (especially the often mentioned chromatic aberration and purple fringing) and, without a BICMOS sensor, its rapid capture ability was not that much better than the SX20.

I was on something of a self imposed time limit for my shopping. I had two major trips to photo destinations scheduled and coming up fast…1) St Augustine Florida for the Florida Birding and Photo Fest and the Alligator Farm rookery for flight shots, and 2) Ohio for The Biggest Week in American Birding and lots of frantically feeding warbler opportunities along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.

After a fair amount of research, I bought and shot several hundred images with the Fuji HS20. The Fuji had all the right specs and handling was a dream: 24-720mm equivalent zoom, 8-11 fps, full HD video, extended contrast range, macro mode with special processing for out-of-focus backgrounds, manual zoom and easy button access to common settings, and an ultra solid feel. Unfortunately the image quality from its 16mp sensor was about on a par with that of my original Superzoom…the Sony H9 of several years ago. The Fuji showed a lot of water color effect…fine details were smeared, and smooth color gradients were blocky. While the images look good, spectacular even, at smaller sizes and resolutions, even with every effort to process the files for best effect in Lightroom, they too often looked more like paintings than photographs at anything approaching full resolution…an effect that was obvious in even an 8.5×11 print. Folks who use and love the camera claim that with proper settings (using the camera at 8mp, and tweaking a bunch of other stuff) you can nurse some truly spectacular images out of this camera, but if I had wanted to be nurse I would have gone to school for it. I wanted a camera that I could pretty much use out of the box for satisfying results. I returned the Fuji, with genuine regrets, but few doubts.

View this image at full resolution to see the water color effect…a deal breaker for me.

That sent me to the internet one more time to look at image samples from the remainder of the BICMOS long zoom introductions for this year. The Sony HX100v looks really good on paper, and as a ZEISS employee I am of course attracted by the Vario-Sonnar lens, but it is not really out yet, even at this writing, and samples of the types of images I am interested in capturing are hard to find. I actually had one on order for delivery on release, but my experience with the Fuji made me a bit cautions of cameras that look really good on paper, and that have high pixel count BICMOS sensors (the Sony is also 16mp).

I ended up, after looking at all the samples images I could find, going to my local Best Buy and purchasing a Nikon Coolpix P500 on the day I left for Florida. Not the wisest course of action, but, as you will see if you read on, one that, so far, has worked out pretty well.

Nikon COOLPIX P500 12.1 CMOS Digital Camera with 36x NIKKOR Wide-Angle Optical Zoom Lens and Full HD 1080p VideoThe Nikon Coolpix P500 has a 36x zoom, 23mm to 810mm equivalent and I like both ends (as well as pretty much everything in between). I already knew, from my experiments with the Fuji, that 24mm is significantly wider then 28mm when it comes to expansive landscapes, and, of course, 23mm is even wider. Better yet, at 23mm the Nikon lens has less distortion than my Canon SX20 at 28mm. Impressive. And at 810mm the Coolpix has the reach for many birds, even warblers in the woods, and certainly for much of the wildlife you might encounter. Amazingly the lens has very little chromatic aberration at any setting of the zoom. In fact it is the cleanest zoom, by far, that I have seen on any superzoom. Purple fringing (a sensor artifact that often accompanies CA from the lens) is so well controlled as to be practically no-existent. This would be impressive in a shorter zoom, but at 36x it is, as I say, amazing!

23mm equivalent field of view 810mm equivalent field of view

Then too, the P500 shoots 8 frames per second in continuous mode for a burst of 5 shots, or 24 frames at 1.8 frames per second. 8 fps is fast enough to capture even birds in flight or rapidly feeding warblers. Most of the time I end up selecting the best of the 5 shots, but I have captured several 5 shot sequences of birds in motion that are quite satisfying. And if 8 fps is not fast enough, you can even set the camera to lower resolution for up to 240 fps stop motion sequences.

Scarlet Tanager

takes flight: 8 fps, 5 frames

selected shots from 5 taken at 8 frames per second

All that is good…very good…but of course no camera is any better than its base image quality. The P500 has a 12mp BICMOS sensor. I have done some careful side by side testing, and while the Canon SX20IS’ 12mp sensor should, in theory, have very slight edge in fine detail, in fact, the Nikon has at least as good, if slightly different, image quality at ISO 160 as the Canon. And the Nikon  has the best extended dynamic range and image optimization routines of any camera I have used…as well as considerably better high ISO performance. All in all, unlike the Canon SX20IS / Fuji HS20 comparison, in comparing the Nikon Coolpix P500 and the Canon SX20IS, the Nikon comes out the clear image quality winner. The following comparison shots are just as they came from the camera, and are available at full resolution with a click.

Nikon Coolpix P500 vs. Canon SX20IS: ISO 160, subdued light

P500 vs. SX20IS, ISO 800, inside.

P500 vs. SX20IS, ISO 1600, natural light

For extended dynamic range, the Nikon Coolpix’s Active D-Lighting can be set to 3 levels: Low, Normal, or High. It adjusts exposure overall, and selectively processes the highlights and shadows for extended range. In my experience it does a really good job of maintaining natural detail in clouds and opening shadows in the foreground…all without the unnatural effects of much HDR work. It is so good, in fact, that images from the P500 require very little exposure work in post-processing. I have intentionally tested the P500 with scenes that have always proved a challenge for my previous cameras, and there is a very noticeable improvement in the way the P500 renders the scene with Active D-Lighting on.

This scene is particularly difficult to render, with the shadowed trunks in the foreground and the bright sky behind. Active D-Lighting does an excellent job.

Image Optimization can be set to Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid, Portrait, Custom, and Black and White.  Custom gives you direct control over contrast, sharpening, and saturation. The rest of the modes apply some combination of those effects corresponding to their names. Vivid, which is what I use most of the time, produces the same effect out of camera that I have achieved in Lightroom with my other cameras…a bit of fill light, blackpoint slightly to the right, added clarity and vibrance…for an image that has a good deal of pop and drama…but without being so over the top as to call attention to itself. I have not experimented much with the other settings, but I plan on doing so.

Both Active D-Lighting and Image Optimization make the camera do more of the work I would normally do in Lightroom after the fact. I know that makes some photographers really really nervous (and quite disdainful of those who do not share their opinions and habits). They want to shoot in RAW and carefully control all parameters in post-processing for the best rendering of their vision.  I am not that kind of guy. If the camera can do the job, I am perfectly willing to let it. In fact, I am happy to let it. As long as I know what the camera is going to do to the image, and can pre-visualize the result, letting the camera do its thing leaves me more energy to concentrate on seeing and composing. And I really do not need to spend any more time in front of the computer than is absolutely necessary, thank you all the same.

imageSpeaking of composition, the P500 has two features which I find really useful. The first, and most important, is a flip out LCD so that I can compose near-ground-level scenics and shoot macros without getting down on my knees and stomach. I refuse to buy any new camera that does not have an articulated LCD. The second is a user selected rule of thirds grid in the finder. While every rule is made to be broken, having the the two vertical power lines, the two horizons, and the 4 power points right there imposed on every scene definitely improves my ability to see a better finished image…whether I choose to follow the rule of thirds or to break it. (See The Really Strong Suggestion of Thirds). And, since it is user selected, if you don’t like it there, you can turn it off.

near-ground-level scenic

Macro at ground level, both made easy by the flip out LCD

And speaking of macros, the Nikon P500 can be set to macro focus in almost any of its exposure modes, but it also has a Close-up Scene Mode, which selects several parameters beyond macro focus to improve your chances of good results. The zoom automatically zooms to best length…the setting where you can get closest focus and largest image scale…about 32mm equivalent field of view. Focus switches to continuous center frame, exposure to center frame, and Image Optimization to Vivid. Good to go. Simply flip out the LCD, and hold the camera as close as  3/4 of an inch away from your subject. You can over-ride the zoom setting of course, and shoot full frame macros at out to 810mm equivalent from as close as 4 feet. The results are impressive…the best I have seen from any small sensor camera. I suspect there is some digital trickery going on to maintain good foreground and subject depth of field, while throwing the background well out of focus. At least the images look to me much more like images from a large camera sensor using longer focal length lenses than those from your average small sensor, short lens, P&S.

If you have read other reviews of the P500 you have probably encountered some criticism of the controls. Maybe it is a matter of expectations, but I find the controls, in actual field use, to be among the easiest, most responsive of any camera I have used in a long time. I love the Program Shift wheel right under your thumb that allows you shift the balance between f-stop and shutter speed at will, while maintaining correct exposure. I like the Exposure Compensation control on the control dial, also easily accessible via thumb. I like the separate, well placed, menu button that allows you to get the menus up even with the camera at eyelevel. And, while the menu system might look old-fashioned, it actually works very well, allowing rapid access to most settings, and on the fly changes…again, without removing the camera from your eye or taking your eye off the LCD. And the menu is blessedly fast. There is no lag at all between selection and implementation. with a little practice, you can be into the menus with a press of the button, scroll to your setting with the control dial, make your selection, and be back out of the menus and shooting in less time than it takes to read this sentence. What is not to like?

The P500 has several specialized exposure modes made possible by the BICMOS sensor and its rapid capture ability. I have not experimented with them all, but I particularly like the Night Landscape mode. Night Landscape rapidly captures 3 or more images of the same scene, then stacks them in camera to provide a sharp, richly colored night scene. Though some effort is made to control noise, I have found that more noise reduction in post processing helps…but the final results are pretty amazing.

The crescent moon and Venus in conjunction at dawn, St. Augustine FL. Night Landscape Mode.

St. Francis Inn, St. Augustine, Night Landscape Mode, handheld ambient light only

There is also an backlight HDR mode which shoots and combines several images for extended dynamic range even beyond that available with Active D-Lighting. Unfortunately, unless the scene has extreme contrast, the in camera processing produces a relatively flat image, which has more noise and more jpg artifacts than a single exposure. Fortunately Active D-Lighting is so good, HDR will rarely be needed, and when it is you can always shoot three auto bracketed exposures and combine them in Photomatix or some other HDR software.

There are actually way more scene and program modes than I have yet explored. Smart Portrait and Portrait provide a softer look with an out of focus background. Smart Portrait has face recognition. Beach and Snow provide for extremes of highlight range, etc. etc. It also has a mode in which the camera chooses the Scene mode based on an analysis of the frame. (That is taking camera automation even a bit far for me :)

The P5oo gives you two panorama options. Auto sweep panorama allows you to simply hold the shutter button down and sweep the camera along a horizontal or vertical line while it captures images. The camera then stitches them and evens out exposure. The results are very good, though the narrow dimension of the image is limited to 560 pixels in horizontal panos, and 1024 in vertical panos. The second option is to use Assisted Panorama mode. This provides guides to help you to align a series of full resolution images to be stitched together later in the included Panorama software, or in PhotoMerge in PhotoShop Elements.

Sweep Panorama mode

full resolution, assisted Panorama mode, stitched in PhShEl 9.

The P500 gives you control over both Image Size and Image Quality (compression ratio). I shoot in full size, 12mp, and Fine quality (low compression) almost all the time.

For action, I started out with the Sports Mode, which selects 5 shots at 8 frames per second, continuous focus, center focus and exposure, standard Image Quality, and Medium (8mp) size. While this works, I quickly found that I could still get 8 fps at Full Size (12mp) and Fine Image Quality, so I created a User mode with those settings, along with LCD off, full zoom, and a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 (yes you can set that!). I call that my Flight and Action mode.

My user designed flight and action mode.

By setting up Program with Full Size, Fine IQ, Active D-Lighting Normal, Image Optimization Vivid, I can use that setting on the control dial as my general purpose landscape and scenic mode. I then set my Scene Mode to Close Up (or Macro), and I have my User mode set for Flight and Action as above. That gives me three choices on the control dial for 90% of my shooting. With easy thumb access to Program Shift and Exposure Compensation in all modes, unless the situation is really extraordinary, or I want to shoot a panorama, I never actually have to go into the menus.

The Nikon Coolpix P500 does have some drawbacks. 1) As above, there are times when I can see more processing artifacts in the fine detail of landscapes than I really want to see, 2) The lens, while excellent in all other ways, is not very fast. f3.4 at 23mm to f5.7 at 810mm. 3) perhaps because of the slow lens, the minimum ISO is a rather high 160. Every other camera I have ever owned went down to ISO 100, and most went to ISO 80. (It might be noted that image quality at ISO 160 on this BICMOS sensor is as good as image quality at 100 on most small CCDs I have used, and image quality above 400 is considerably better.) 4) on and off times are not among the fastest. 5) it takes a while, especially when shooting Full Size and Fine, for the camera to write its burst of 5 images at 8 fps to the card. That can mean missing action. 6) focus, while excellent and quite fast, is still not as fast or accurate as the more sophisticated systems in DSLRs, 7) image sensor shift Vibration Reduction, while adequate for most shooting, is not as good as the lens based Optical Image Stabilization in Canon P&Ss. High zoom video, for instance, requires a tripod (and it is noisy!), and finally, 8) battery life, while adequate, is rather short by today’s standards, and the camera does not come with an external charger. To charge you have to plug the whole camera in via proprietary usb cable. Fortunately the P500 uses a common Nikon battery, and both extra batteries and external chargers are available, and relatively inexpensive, on Amazon. (Some users have reported more serious battery problems, with unusually short discharge and discharge while the camera is off…but my camera has been fine…and most who have had the problem returned the camera for one that works. Buyer be aware.)

Conclusion: while no camera is perfect, the Nikon Coolpix P500 is about as versatile a camera as you could ask for. From panorama, to ultra-wide, to macro, to portrait range, to long telephoto…from high dynamic range/high impact landscapes to soft telling portraits, from dawn to dusk, from night portrait to night landscape, from snow and sand to fireworks, from active wildlife to actual birds in flight…the P500 does it all, in a compact package that is easy to carry and use in the field. Like all superzoom bridge cameras it will not equal the image quality of a DSLR and a bag full of lenses, but it is certainly a camera that will bring back satisfying results under the widest possible range of conditions. It certainly does everything I had hoped for and more. It is a fun camera. And at this point in my photographic journey, it is just what is wanted.

Posted in bridge camera, Nikon Coolpix P500, Opinion, Reviews, super zoom | 28 Comments

Photomatix Light HDR

Mousam River HDR

One day, just as my experiments with multiple exposure High Dynamic Range imaging on the iPhone (using Pro HDR) were taking hold, I found myself face to face with a landscape suitable for HDR treatment…and no iPhone in my pocket! It was charging at home and I had forgotten to pick it up on the way out the door.

But I did have, of course, my Canon SX20IS. Surely I thought, there must be software that is a easy to use on the PC, after the fact, as Pro HDR is to use on the iPhone. It should then, just be a matter of taking multiple exposures and dealing with them at home. So I tried both manually adjusting exposure between shots using the Exposure Compensation dial on the SX20IS, and using the auto bracket function, which captures three exposures, on each 1EV either side of metered.

Research when I got home turned up a couple of possibilities for software and I downloaded trail copies. Of them, the one that showed most promise was Photomatix Light (that is the lite version of Photomatix…remember I was looking for something as easy as Pro HDR on the iPhone). I found a discount coupon on a review site, and bought a copy.

Maybe a few words about what HDR software attempts to do might help. The range of tones (levels of brightness, both in an absolute sense (as in black and white), and in any given color) visible to the human eye is much greater than the range of tones that can be captured by the best digital sensor. We call the range of tones that can be seen or captured the dynamic range of the medium. In a normally exposed landscape, taken on a sensor with limited dynamic range…especially a landscape with dramatic sky and a full play of light and shadow…a normally exposed image will leave the sky too pale with all the detail burned out of any clouds, and the shadows too dark…so dark you loose all color in the  darker shades of green and red (in particular).

Bosque del Apache NWR HDR

You could, of course, take three (or more) exposures: 1) one for shadow detail and color, 2) one for the more usual midrange tones, 3) and one for the highlights and sky. HDR software allows you to digitally combine those three exposures into a single exposure…using data from  the 1st for shadows, data from  the 2nd for mid-range, and data from  the 3rd for highlights. The trick with this method is to get the three images perfectly aligned, so all the edges in the three images overlap perfectly…otherwise you get ghosting along the edges of things. This can be a real problem on a windy day when dealing with foreground foliage and plants…and, of course, makes HDRs of any moving object or subject…including people…impossible.

(Advocates of DSLRs and RAW shooting will tell you that HDR is less necessary with larger sensors (which should have more inherent dynamic range) and more effective with RAW files. I would not know. I work with a P&S and JPEG and am satisfied with the results :)

So far so good. The fact is however, that that data in the HDR image still has to be displayed in some form, on your computer monitor or as a print…and both you monitor and your printer also have limited dynamic range…and, what is worse, the distribution of tones within the dynamic range of your monitor or your printer is different than the distribution of tones in the eye or your sensor. An HDR file that is displayed or printed will look curiously flat, as its extended data is recompressed into the range of the display medium, and the tones you worked hard to catpure are clipped off at either end.

New Jersey Foliage HDR

You can overcome this failing somewhat by mapping the tones of the HDR file on into the dynamic range of the display medium…in effect, choosing where each tone in the image will fall within the dynamic range of the display medium.  Mapping involves adjusting the local contrast between tones (both absolute and color) that fall close to each other within the dynamic range. This has the effect of making details within the final image pop out more. You can also fit the true black and true white points back into the display medium’s dynamic range (instead of letting them be clipped off at either end), and you can add intensity and vibrance to all the colors by increasing their saturation and luminance. You can also use Tone-mapping controls to shift the center brightness of the image toward light or dark (which can alter the look of the image dramatically)…or even to apply somewhat directional lighting effects by manipulating the offset of local contrast around highlights and shadows within the final image. It sounds harder than it is. In most HDR software, tone-mapping is done (and in general terms, is best done) by eye, using slider controls which show changes on a rough preview image in real time.

Bosque Watchers HDR

It is the tone-mapping features of HDR software that lead, in my opinion, to the overbaked, unrealistic, surrealistic look of much of the HDR work you see published, for instance, on Flickr (kind of like a bad painting). That does not mean, however, that judicious use of Tone-mapping will not improve almost any HDR shot.

Returning to Photomatix Light, it is not, in fact, as easy or as automatic as Pro HDR on the iPhone, but it is close enough…it does a pretty good job of auto-aligning your exposures and a pretty good job of  blending them (see below). It gives you too blending options: standard exposure blending and exposure blending with tone-mapping for detail enhancement. (Pro HDR on the iPhone only provides the Tone-mapped option…since that is, in fact, what most people think of as HDR anyway.) Photomatix will take up to 3 exposures, though it works with 2 (you can even use Tone-mapping with a single exposure for an HDR-like effect).

The Tone-mapping controls are particularly effective and easy to use. You can choose from one of three defaults: Default, Painterly, and Grunge…or you can adjust the controls by eye to your taste. I use custom settings most of the time, and adjust with final processing in Lightroom in mind. See screen shots. (All these can be enlarged by clicking on the image. You will have to do that on the Lightroom settings screen shot to see the settings.)


Normally metered exposure.


Three exposures auto bracketed 1EV either side of normal. You can use the file selector or drag and drop.


Blended Exposure


Default Details Enhancer Tone Mapping


Painterly Tone-mapping

Grunge: unfortunately this is the effect you see most often labeled as HDR. Not a good representation of the real potential, imho.

My own custom settings for this image…with Lightroom processing in mind.


As the image comes from Photomatix.


My Lightroom settings: click to enlarge for a better view.


Final image…

Where Photomatix Light shows its limits is in an occasional failure to align the three images perfectly. It also has some issues with layering over gray sky. It sometimes leaves a light halo behind and around silhouetted branches and foliage, or shows different sky tones on one side of tree that breaks the horizon than on the other. (Though you should not judge this too critically by the preview image…the final image is always better aligned and blended than the preview.)

I have found that with my SX20IS, on daylight landscapes, adjusting the Exposure Compensation dial to –2/3 EV before taking the bracketed shots gives better results. EV compensation moves all three exposures by the selected amount.  For sunset shots or particularly dull days, I have also adjusted the Exposure Compensation to the plus side and gotten better results. You have to experiment.

Finally, I don’t find the Light features of Photomatix all that useful. If you look at the Painterly and Grunge preset screen shots above you will see that the Light Mode is selected in each case, with Mid chosen for Painterly and Low for Grunge. I find that the Light modes almost always result in an unrealistic image…not to my taste (though it might be to yours).

These days I shoot an HDR version of a landscape often enough so I have my bracketing and exposure settings programmed into the SX20IS’s Custom dial setting.

All my HDRs, by the way, are taken without a tripod, relying on a steady hand and the Canon’s Image Stabilization.

So, HDR with Photomatix Light is easy and effective. You might want to give it a try.

HDR Pano: 4 sets of 3 exposures, Photomatix, Photoshop Elements Pano tool, and final processing in Lightroom. View it as large as you can by clicking the image.
Posted in Canon SX20IS, hdr, inspiration, instruction, Lightroom, panorama, Photomatix, PhotoShop Elements, postprocessing | 3 Comments

A New Kind of Point and Shoot: iPhone 4

It had to come to this, of course. My new iPhone has a 5mp camera with a back-illumined, low-noise, high sensitivity CMOS sensor, auto focus and auto exposure (or you can select the focus and exposure point with a tap), and, by all appearances, a pretty good, maybe even and excellent, lens. It is, in every sense of the words, much more camera then my first digital camera, a 2.1 mp Olympus that I bought in 2001 for over $500 (well, every sense of the words except for the 3x zoom).

Couple a decent digital camera with the on-board processing power of the iPhone and its available apps…conservatively a more powerful computer than my first Mac Classic by a factor of several hundreds…and you have a whole new kind of Point and Shoot photography: a camera with built in post-processing.

This is going to be a joint post, with mini reviews of the applications appearing in due course on my Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights blog, for those who are more interested in the technology behind the images. In this post, I am mostly going to talk about (and demonstrate) some of the new potentials the iPhone 4 brings to the photographer.

Let me say that some of these potentials are beginning to appear in some Point and Shoot cameras on a more limited scale. No P&S yet has the processing power to do what the iPhone does with ease…but I expect that in the not to distant future (if you are in the mood for prognostication), we will see P&Ss with all these capabilities. Two of the main potentials of the iPhone are already incorporated in some Sony offerings. Sweep panorama does the iPhone’s panorama potential one better, in some ways, and Sony is already stacking images taken at different exposures for in-camera HDR (extended dynamic range) images…though they seem to limit it so far to low light situations.

HDR: Pro HDR app


The three images showcased so far are examples of HDR photography on the iPhone 4. All three were produced completely on the iPhone (in fact, they were even uploaded to my SmugMug site directly from the iPhone). All are linked back to Wide Eyed In Wonder if you want to study larger versions.

The iPhone app is Pro HDR. Open the app. Choose HDR Camera on the splash screen. Point the phone at your scene. Tap the image once in a bright area (generally sky and clouds) and then take the picture. Tap the image again in a dark area (generally foreground landscape) and take a second picture. The app then takes the two images and combines the sky tones from one with the landscape tones from the other (or the light tones from one with the dark tones of the other), aligning and rotating if needed (in case your hand was not perfectly steady holding the camera for the two exposures) and produces a HDR image like the ones above. The image is displayed over a set of sliders that allow you to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, and warmth (color temperature or white balance), so you can fine-tune the result. You then have the option of saving your HDR image to your Camera Roll (the originals are also saved if you set the app to do that in Settings), or emailing a smaller version to yourself or directly to a photo site on the web that takes email posts, like Posterous or Facebook.

An unintentional benefit of Pro HDR is that tapping far and near for exposure also focus the camera far and near, so that the finished image has a much greater depth of field than normal. If you take a look at the images above, or the one below, you will see that there is amazing detail from the bottom of the frame all the way to the top.

A lot of today’s HDR work really turns me off…I find it overdone and unrealistic…not just painterly…but verging on cartoonish. A caricature of the scene, so to speak, rather than a faithful rendering of any reality I have ever seen. Pro HDR, on the other hand, produces an image which to my eye is almost perfectly balanced…an amazingly realistic rendering of what I see with my naked eye…all the drama, and yet all the subtlety still intact.

Generally I don’t leave the Pro HDR image as it is. To my eye, it can always use a little sharpening and some color adjustment. I open the saved images in PhotoGene, which is kind of like Lightroom for the iPhone, and make final adjustments. I might straighten the horizon (dead simple in PhotoGene…just slide the straighten slider). I generally, as I said, use the sharpen filter. Finally, for most landscapes I use the RGB controls to pull back the red channel a bit and bring up the greens. (Much more effective than trying to adjust warmth in the Pro HDR app itself.)

Take a look at the full range of tones in that last shot. Notice the transparency of the water and the way the bottom of the stream shows through where the sky is not reflected in the foreground. Notice the detail in the marsh grasses and the range of subtle shades. And the sky is near perfect…as good as I have ever captured with any camera. And it went directly from the iPhone to my Wide Eyed In Wonder SmugMug site via SmugShot.

This final HDR is an example of yet another iPhone app: Foto FX from Tiffin. It was captured and processed in Pro HDR, and then received additional processing in PhotoGene, which included a crop at the top. However the largely featureless sky was still too bright to my eye, so I opened it in Foto FX and applied a .6 Graduated Neutral Density filter. Foto FX has hundreds of effects and filters, and I can not honestly say that I have even scratched the surface. I bought it specifically for the Graduated ND filters and those are the only ones I have used yet. The ND filters are graded, as above, by degree, but each one has a brightness slider that allows for a lot of adjustment. In this case, the .6 GND set to brightness 2 added just enough density to the upper sky to balance the landscape to my eye.

Now you might be thinking that all of this could have been done (maybe even better)  with a conventional camera and software on your desk or laptop. Of course it could have. However, the total cost of all the apps mentioned so far is less than $10. Compare that to a copy of an HDR program for the desktop, or Lightroom, or a complex after-effects program with the capabilities of FotoFX.

Then too, having all this potential literally in your pocket at all times, and at your fingertips in seconds, physically wrapped around the camera, and ready to instantly publish, only makes what I have always said about post-processing even more evident. Post-processing, rightly seen, is part of the creative process and stretches back even before the press of the shutter to where you are still looking for images. Knowing all the potential of the camera/computer in your pocket changes the way you see the world, as well as the way you capture images.

I took most of the images above simply because I could…that is to say…in a very real sense…I think I saw them because I knew I had the tools in my pocket to capture and process them to a faithful rendition of what I saw.  I might not of attempted the images without those tools.

And the availability of the all that power at low cost to any one who owns an iPhone, plus the potential of having the camera and computer always with you, wherever you go (it is your phone after all) will, I predict, cause a flood of new images like we have seldom seen before.

The iPhone 3G was already the most uploaded camera on Flickr by a good margin. The iPhone 4 stands to surpass it by far. And sites and communities like Eye’em (, dedicated to nothing but mobile photography, will only accelerate the process.

And I am only half done!

Panoramas: AutoStitch on the iPhone.

What if there were a camera that just let you take roughly overlapping images, in whatever pattern you like, vertical, horizontal, of any combination of the two, and then it would automatically assemble them into a panorama…and do a better job of blending the images than any desktop program you might have tried. Well…there’s an app for that…on the iPhone…so I guess you have to say there is such a camera already!

This is 8 images, 4 horizontal by 2 vertical. View it as large as you like.

This is 10 images: 5 x2. Notice that stacking the images 2 deep makes them look less like panoramas and more like just a super wide, natural view. Also, since the upper set are metered off the sky, and the lower set are metered off the landscape, the blended exposure approaches that of an HDR.

And finally, as an example of a fully processed, more panorama-like, image…

…12 individual iPhone shtos: 12 x 1, representing over 220 degrees of sweep, taken from the same spot as the forth HDR above (so you can easily compare the field of view).

It is hard to imagine how easy these are to do on the iPhone. No complex framing. Just make sure there is a fair amount of overlap image to image, and trust the AutoStitch app to do the cut and paste, rotate and blend. No complex exposure calculations or considerations. Just let the auto exposure work and trust the app to blend exposures to best effect. And because you have to hold the iPhone out at fair distance from your face to see what you are doing, the camera follows an almost perfect photographic arc that maintains natural perspective image to image, so that the result flows together perfectly. AutoStitch will auto-crop the finished panorama to a rectangle, and then you can save it to your Camera roll.

I generally have to straighten the horizon so I often leave he cropping until I have the image open in PhotoGene. I also apply the Sharpen filer, and generally adjust levels for better exposure of both sky and landscape. The last pano is an example where, since it is only one layer, the foreground was too dark…normal levels adjustment for the foreground would have burned out the whites in the clouds and washed out the blue. I resorted again to a Graduated Neutral Density Filter in FotoFx to darken the sky enough so that I could reopen the image in PhotoGene for one more pass at levels, exposure, contrast, and saturation for the final image. All on the iPhone.

For more detail on Pro HDR, AutoStitch, PhotoGene, and FotoFX, keep your eye on Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights. To follow my progress with iPhone 4 photography, check into my iPhone HDR and Pano gallery on Wide Eyed in Wonder every once in a while, or follow my Pic of the Day blog.

The iPhone 4 is an amazing piece of equipment…an amazing camera…an amazing computer. The potential for expanded photographic range hints at a whole new world of possibilities to come. And it is right there, all the time, in your pocket. Point and Shoot at its very best!


Posted in apps, editing, hdr, inspiration, iPhone 4, panorama, postprocessing | 3 Comments

P&S for Wildlife: Digiscoped Video

(This is a parallel post from the blog I write for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics at

It is getting so you can’t buy a digital camera (exaggeration :) ) that does not have at least 1280×720 HD video capture, or 720HD as they are calling it. And full HD, 1920×1080 (1080HD) is becoming available on an increasing number of Point and Shoot digital cameras (P&Ss) and Digital Single Lens Reflexes (DSLRs) or the growing new class of Interchangeable Lens Electronic Viewfinder cameras (ILEVs). The day when you carried a dedicated camcorder for video, and a dedicated digital still camera for stills, is rapidly passing.

Of course, dedicated camcorders used to the the exclusive home of super-long range zooms: 1-20, 1-30, 1-60x even, and though HD camcorders have tended to be more modest (due to the larger sensor chips required), if you wanted super-telephoto a camcorder was the way to go.

That is changing too. The latest super-zoom P&Ss from all the major makers feature zooms in the 20-30x range, and HD video: and those zooms are long enough for larger birds and closer distances…and certainly large enough for most larger wildlife. And, of course, if you are going to digiscope your video (that is…use a digital camera behind the eyepiece of a spotting scope), all you need is a 3x zoom, even for birds…in fact, all you want is a 3x zoom, if you intend to totally avoid vignetting issues with most spotting scope eyepieces.

There’s the rub, as Shakespeare would say. A recent survey of P&Ss with 720HD video showed none with 3x zooms, few with 4x, and most with 5x or higher. Both 4x and 5x zooms on at least some of today’s P&S cameras can be used behind the eyepiece, especially if they start at a wide-angle: anything below 35mm equivalent seems to work, and most below 28mm are sure to work. You do lose the bottom third (at least) of your zoom range…either on the camera zoom or on the scope zoom. 5x zooms can lose as much as half of the zoom range. Shop carefully and you can bring home a P&S that provides unvignetted fields for HD video from equivalent focal lengths of 1500 to 5000mm behind a suitable scope zoom eyepiece.

And, if you are into digiscoping with a DSLR or ILEV, with a fixed focal length lens behind the eyepiece, or mounted directly on the scope with a Photo Adapter (available for most high quality scopes, though technically this is not digiscoping), then there is no reason not to get a body that does HD video. I mean, why would you?

A digiscoper said recently, and I wish I could find the quotation so I could attribute it properly, that while still shots might have an esthetic edge, there is nothing like video to bring the bird (or any wildlife) to life. Especially an HD video, which can be as crisp and clear as the best cinematic film shots of a few years ago, takes you right into the world of whatever you are observing, just like the live view through a spotting scope does. Video closes the loop of image capture…giving you something very close to the real time experience of using your scope in the field.

I guarantee if you try it you will be hooked.

After experimenting with marginal solutions, I recently bought a little $250 Canon Digital Elph with 720HD video (more on that here). It requires a sturdy tripod, a windless day, a steady hand (and/or a cable release), but the results can be stunning.

Take this little clip of a Chipmunk posing nicely. I featured the still as this weeks Digiscoped Pic of the Week. Catching the video was as easy as flicking the switch on the camera from still to video, zooming back a bit (the HD video frame is narrower, top to bottom, than the still image frame) and pressing the shutter release.

This is two clips of a Song Sparrow tacked together using Nero Vision software. If your computer speakers are up to it, you can hear the CD quality sound that you can catch on a still day. Earphones will really impress, but then you will also hear me breathing (I have to come up with a solution for that!)  For the second clip, I stopped the video, zoomed the eyepiece of the scope up, reframed slightly, and restarted. This is about as intimate view of a Song Sparrow singing as you are likely to see, anywhere.

And remember, this was done with a 65mm spotting scope (relatively light weight) and a $250 P&S. Not bad. Not bad at all!

A quick search around the web will turn up an increasing number of digiscoped videos of birds. And you will only see more, and undoubtedly better, as time goes on, as more cameras become available, and as more digiscopers get hooked on video.

If you want to experiment, go for it. Be warned though. The same folks who willing submit to viewing your digiscoped images of birds, and even ooo and aaaa appropriately, may show a decided lack of patience with even your best video. They will look at a still for 30 seconds, but present them with 30 seconds of video and they shut down. Any longer than 30 seconds and you risk your friendship. ?? Or that is my experience. So far. Maybe it is a comment on my video skills, and maybe I just know the wrong people, but I suspect that video is a much harder medium to get people to engage with, at least in short clips. I have yet to string together a feature length film (maybe 3 to 5 minute) with clever transitions and maybe some narration…that might be what it takes :)

And that only leaves the thorny question of what to call taking videos with a digital still camera behind the eyepiece of a spotting scope? Videoscoping is already in use for taking video from behind the eyepiece with a camcorder, but perhaps it can be expanded. For now I am just calling it Digiscoping Video.

In the meantime, while I will take the stills first, I am trying to train myself to hit the video switch on any bird that sits still long enough. It is just such fun!

Posted in digiscoping, HD, Video | Leave a comment

Quick Dramatic Landscapes in Lightroom

HDR (high dynamic range) has captured the attention of many photographers these days, not always for the good of the art, imho, but there is little doubt the technique produces images with high drama. Most HDR work involves 3 or more exposures of the same scene, bracketed two or more stops, recorded as RAW files, and then processed in PhotoShop or dedicated software to capture the best tones from each exposure.

I shot jpeg, and, though I have experimented with what can be done in software wit 3 jpegs, I have developed a technique in Lightroom for quickly extracting maximum dynamic range and drama from a single file. I am certain that is is not a unique discovery on my part. Given the tools in Lightroom, others will have stumbled on the same technique. I have seen it on Moose Patterson’s twitter stream, for one, and I am sure a google search will turn up other instances, maybe quite a few.  However, since I  have already talked about this process in several posts in the past, and since it has become an essential tool in my photographic process, I thought a little video tutorial might be of interest.

So, here it is. You can view it here, but to see it to best effect it is best to view it through the link on YouTube, and to select the 720p (HD) option. Depending on your computer, you may have to pause it and let the video fully download before it will play smoothly.


Dramatic Landscapes

Posted in dramatic landscape, editing, hdr, instruction, Lightroom, postprocessing | 1 Comment