Ready for Part Three of my delinquent 2015 update? Great! To quickly recap Parts One and Two, the first part of the year was spent overhauling my studio with better organization, new lighting and updated camera equipment. Very specifically, I upped the ante in the megapixel race, going from a 10 mp consumer model (Canon XTi) to the “prosumer” 20 mp Canon 70D. So many more pixels! So much more I would be able to capture! More color! More detail! More… dust?
The perils of 20 megapixel still life photography!
Yes, more dust. Bad, evil, OCD triggering dust. Try shooting the surface of vinyl records without capturing a whole lotta dust. In the past, this was only a minor issue for two simple reasons:
- One, as my scenes had previously been constructed inside a light tent, the tent basically protected the scene from accumulating too much dust. Even if I worked on the composition over several weeks, I could always zip up the light tent and keep everything inside relatively free from an invasion of dust. Not so with the scene constructed on top of a table in the — gasp! — open air.
- Two, from a distance even the Sahara desert looks like merely a solid patch of earth, but up close… wow, that’s a lot of sand! The same hold true by doubling the number of pixels you capture with your camera.
Yep, where in the past, the vinyl surfaces you see in my photos required only minor retouching for dust and other blemishes, everything was now much more greatly magnified, and what had previously been beyond notice now (in my paranoid eyes) jumped off the screen like a blizzard of distraction! Take a look at this example of a very small portion of my most recent photo, Sybil leaves nothing to Chance, as she prepares for a romantic evening at 21.
At the top is the image before I began removing dust and retouching various other distractions that needed repair. 826 spot repairs later (yes, 826, for an area no larger than, well, a record label) and I was able to mostly sweep the dust out of the scene.
In the “after” image you still notice a little dust present; mostly in the lower left corner and just above the card on the right hand side. Because I create my images from several layered photos, the dust you see here is actually removed in a different photo that overlays those regions present in this example.
With my most recent photo consisting of 36 separate layers and dust present on a half dozen different vinyl surfaces, I had my work cut out for me. All told… I removed 9,446 specks of dust! Okay, actually, that’s an exaggeration… I made 9,446 retouching strokes, some of which were to repair scuff marks on the album cover or to paint on the plastic figures. I also removed two large reflections from the surface of the crystal ball, but take my word for it — most of this work was removing evil highly magnified specks of dust!
How sweet it is!
In my own self-deprecating way I frequently tell people that I really don’t know how to use my camera. To a large extent, this is true! A technically skilled photographer could probably look at my setup, measure the focal length, measure the light, turn a lot of knobs and flip a lot of switches, then press the shutter button once to capture the best possible photo. That’s not me. I have always set my camera upon the tripod, selected one of the auto-focus point, then click, click, clicked away at every aperture setting from f/9 to f/16. Then I’d move to the next AF point… click, click, click! And so on until I’d exhausted every combination of apertures and AF point (and if you think that’s crazy, I used to do the same thing for three different ISO settings until I finally settled on ISO 100). It was only after all the photos had been shot that I would then wade through this big bag of identical images and pick out those that were each individual object was the sharpest. From those multiple photos I could construct a single composite image with everything in the frame in sharp focus. And like that old cliche of a “doomed future” for those who do not learn from the past, so it was for me, as I would methodically repeat this combinatorial nightmare for every new project even though I knew in my head than every photos taken from f/10 through f/16 would not be quite as sharp as those taken at f/9. Did that stop me? Of course not!
Imagine my delight when I learned that every lens that supports multiple apertures has a “sweet spot” — the aperture setting that will theoretically result in the sharpest images. Hurray! Finally! The decision of which aperture is best had essentially been decided for me!
After doing a little research I discovered that the “sweet spot” for my lens (a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM) is an aperture of f/8, which more or less confirmed the insanity of multiple apertures eventually whittled down to those shot at f/9. So, from now on, f/8 it would be!
At magnification, the difference in clarity and depth of field between f/8 and f/9 turned out to be very significant. In the past, at various points in a scene, I could reliably observe a couple of inches of acceptable depth of field at f/9. At f/8 and with the greater level of detail captured with a 20mp camera, the depth of field from one focus point to the next dropped significantly. Often, it seemed (or maybe my eyes were just playing tricks) the discernible depth of field was remarkably shallow; often not more than an inch or so. Hence, I manually focused my way to 36 layers where — from one layer to the next — individual objects could be observed to be juuuuuuust a little sharper than that same object in an adjacent layer.
The result of all this change?
Working with new lighting, a new camera, an entirely new process, and the various challenges that would come with so many more pixels (which we’ll get to in a moment), I’d originally intended to create a “practice” photo so that I could make mistakes, learn, and just get used to all of the changes. Funny thing, though; I actually liked what I was creating, so I ended up spending two months working on the new photo — three weeks in the studio working with all my new equipment, and 5 weeks in post production where I discovered that…
…20 mega pixels is a LOT of information!
Yep! Apart from my aforementioned obsession with dust, 20 megapixel files introduced a variety of new challenges in how I deal with my images in post production.
And here is the final image!
Later this week, I’ll finish off this four part update on 2015 with news of the new video that accompanies this photo. Stay tuned!