Monthly Archives: April 2007

The Photography of Molly Lesher

I love finding new photographers whose work I haven’t seen.  I especially love it when they have a style or theme that is all their own.  I’m at the point in my photography where I haven’t developed a strong style yet, so I’m envious of those who have.  Molly Lesher is an artist who has done at least one theme very well — and it’s not a widely covered theme.

Her stuff is dark, demented, twisted, messed up, cold, innovative, and… yet very beautiful.  She has seven galleries on her website, and they’re sort of divided into three or four main themes.  Galleries one through three have the really screwed up stuff in them — I mean really screwed up.  But it’s great, and I love it.  I’ve got a lot of respect for a photographer who can do things like that.  Galleries four and five are semi-random stuff, but in an interesting way.  Gallery six has a lot of good macro work, and gallery seven is horses.

My suggestion — at least check out one through three.  It’s so… dark.  I can’t even describe it well enough to do it justice, and I don’t want to post her work here because it’s not mine.  So you’ll just have to hop on over there and see it for yourself.

Visit Molly Lesher

White Wild Flower

This was a photo I took a while ago — back before my days of SLR. I was using an ultra-zoom at the time, but it worked out fine for most things. This photo was taken in North Idaho (back home), and I sat on it for the longest time because it just didn’t do anything for me. It’s some kind of wild flower, but I don’t know what it’s called and I’m too lazy to find out. Actually, it’s probably more of a weed than anything. They’re all over the place out there and I’ve seen them in a couple of different colors. I took the shot straight down into this flower, but unfortunately I framed it right in the center (1). That’s probably why I didn’t do anything with it for a while — it wasn’t really eye catching. But then I got a little creative with it.

White Wild Flower

I started off by setting the composition a little better. A square crop (2) seemed to suit it a little more nicely, but I left the flower in the center because it seemed to work better that way. I was on a black & white kick, so I used a black & white adjustment layer (3) in Adobe Photoshop CS3. I set it to 0% red, 0% yellow, 0% green, 110% cyan, 110% blue, and 110% magenta. This turned the green/yellow background nearly black while making the purple/blue flower almost white. Then I did a curves adjustment layer (4) with an “S” curve that was a bit heavy on the dark side, but I still brightened the highlights some too. The last thing I did was a little sharpening and the addition of vignette (5) to soften the corner midtones and highlights some. Given what I started with, I was pretty happy with the outcome.

White Wild Flower

Photo by Brian Auer
06/05/05 Post Falls, ID
White Wild Flower
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
62mm equiv * f/3.2 * 1/40s * ISO64

Equipment Review: Nikon Micro Fiber Cleaning Cloth

Aside from my camera and lenses, my most used piece of equipment is a micro fiber cloth by Nikon. A clean lens is essential to producing consistent quality images, and there are a number of ways to accomplish this. Obviously, the best way to clean a lens element is to wet clean it with the proper chemicals and wipes, but that’s hardly feasible when you’re out and about.

Micro Fiber Cleaning Cloth
by Nikon

This handy little tool is small enough to take everywhere with you, but big enough to clean the largest of lenses. The cloth is made of a very soft micro fiber material, and it’s about 5 by 5 inches in size. It fits into a small elastic pouch with a clip attachment, and the overall size is smaller than a 9 volt battery.

I typically use this cloth while I’m out shooting to give the front lens element a quick wipe to ensure I don’t have any stray dust or fingerprints mucking up my shots. You can also use it to clean the LCD screen, but I tend to use my shirt for that so I don’t get skin oils on the micro fiber cloth. I use the cloth for more than just my SLR gear; it works great for cleaning up the point & shoot lenses.

My cloth stays in my camera gear backpack with most of my other stuff, but I’ll take it out and stick it in my pocket along with my spare battery if I’m packing light. You can also clip it to your neckstrap and just leave it there so you always have it handy. And if you’re a real photo geek, you’ll put this baby on your keys as a keychain.

Overall, it’s a good compact tool for light lens cleaning. It doesn’t work great for really grimey situations, but it will take care of dust and fingerprints no problem. At around $5 to $10 at Amazon or any photo store, it’s hardly worth not buying one next time you make an order.

The Evolution of Photo Formats

I’ve seen the topic of photo file formats pop up a number of times, from JPEG to HD Photo to TIFF to DNG… the list goes on and on. The Photoprenuer has an interesting article titled “How Long Will Your Photos Last?“. This one really got me thinking about standard formats and the future of the digital photo.

When I think of photo prints, I think of them fading after so many years. This is probably not the best way to keep your photos around for a long time. Film and slides, I’m assuming the same thing, but I’m no film expert. Now digital photos, on the other hand, should keep forever as long as you don’t lose them or corrupt the files… right?

While the data integrity may be preservable, the ability to view that data may not be. The battle between JPEG and HD Photo has already begun. Almost every camera outputs (or has the ability to) a JPEG, and it’s a format that’s viewable on any piece of viewing or editing software I’ve encountered. But what about 10 or 20 years from now when the humble JPEG has been deemed “outdated” and support for this format slowly trails off? Could this happen? Not anytime soon, but I won’t be surprised when it does.

That same battle may already be underway with RAW files output by dSLR cameras. Most cameras output a RAW file that is of proprietary format to that camera manufacturer. What happens when they go out of business? Konica Minolta was gobbled up by Sony and I’m cranking out MRW (Minolta RAW) files that will probably drop off of Adobe’s support list as the KM cameras die off. What about the smaller dSLR manufacturers like Pentax, Fuji, and Olympus? How long will they last in the market?

Luckily, there is (sort of) an answer to the problem — DNG (Digital Negative) format. It’s kind of a non-proprietary RAW file created by Adobe, and it’s even being used in some cameras. For those of us with cameras that don’t output a DNG, Adobe has DNG converter software for Windows and Mac — sorry, no Linux. It sounds intriguing, but apparently there are still a few issues with the open source-ness of it. But it’s really the only RAW format that tries to address this issue.

Is this the format that will take over as the standard of RAW? Who knows. I’m hesitant to jump on board and double the number of files in my image library. Maybe as soon as every camera manufacturer implements this format in their new cameras, I’ll make the move. Until then, I’ll probably just rely on Adobe to keep supporting my file formats.

I don’t see any huge changes in photo format support over the next 5 or 10 years, but I’m guessing something will happen eventually. I would expect a shift or update in formats every decade or two as technology progresses. Heck, I wouldn’t even be surprised to see our basic methods of data storage change so drastically that it wipes out the need for file formats as we know them. But hey, correct me if I’m wrong in 50 years.

Video Killed the Photography Star?

Could it happen? Could video cameras ultimately replace the still camera? Dirck Halstead at The Digital Journalist seems to think so. He writes about The Coming Earthquake in Photography almost as if he himself weren’t a photographer. This hurts Dirck. Deep down… this hurts.

…in the future photojournalists would no longer be shooting still pictures, but instead would be using video as their prime medium of acquisition.

His prediction is that in the next 10 years, still cameras will suffer at the hand of video worse than film did with digital (no offense to you film guys, you’re a dying breed — but keep it up). Did I mention he’s a photographer? And what’s more, most of the major camera manufacturers will be out of business in 10 years — except Canon. Um, okay. I seriously doubt that Sony is going to throw in the towel that quickly. Just look what they’ve done with Betamax, Minidisc, Memory Stick, PlayStation 3, and Blu-Ray.

However, it is video that will undoubtedly become the main means of acquisition in photography. Today, almost all the manufacturers of prosumer video cameras have moved to High Definition. These cameras, off the shelf, are capable of delivering a 2-megapixel still image.

Whoopty-Doo. Most new cell phones can grab a 2MP photo. Plus, I really doubt that video cameras are eventually going to get the same size sensor as a still camera. There’s no need. You watch video on a monitor. Monitors are fairly limited in resolution compared to a still camera.

Because video cameras now all feature a 16:9 “wide-screen” aspect ratio… you can expect to see wide-screen pictures not only on your TV screen, but in print as well. We predict that magazines (those that still exist) in 10 years will be bound on the top or bottom, not on the sides as they now are. That will allow the magazine to be opened to display a horizontal rather than vertical layout. This will accommodate all those “wide-screen” photographs.

Yes, because that would be so very convenient for reading. And eventually, through evolution, our right arm will migrate down the side of our torso to accommodate those horizontal bound magazines. Even if, by some chance, still cameras went 16×9… I think they’d still print books and magazines the same way they do now. At least I’d like to think so, because I can’t afford to update all my books with that outdated side binding crap.

Part of this article makes me want to laugh, but I’m a little ticked at the same time. How can anybody who has been shooting photography for any amount of time think that video will take over? How do you control the shutter speed on a video camera? How many of you have video cameras with interchangeable lenses and manual apertures?

My guess, is that still cameras (SLR) are going to incorporate video capabilities into them rather than the other way around. But there will always be the need for good dedicated still and video cameras. I’m perfectly happy not having video capture on my dSLR. Likewise, I’ve never used the still capture on my digital video camera. And I never will.

Advanced Layer Mask Creation in Photoshop

One of my readers, Lee, left a comment on the Dark Architecture post asking how I created the layer mask to separate the sky from the building. Good question Lee, and I didn’t get into it there because it’s a process in itself. I probably spent more time trying to get the mask right on that photo than anything else.

In my post a couple of weeks ago called Digital Photo Editing With Layer Masks in Photoshop, I covered the basics of masking and touched on the advanced stuff. If you haven’t read it, now’s a good time. Now, I’d like to get into the advanced techniques for creating masks right from the photo that’s being processed. I probably won’t cover every single method for doing this, but I’ll at least explain the one that I frequently use.

Why should you learn how to create advanced layer masks? I must say, I don’t use this on every single photo I process, but it’s awfully nice to have the ability when the need arises. I use this technique for photos that need different levels of editing on distinct parts of the image. For instance, you might be toying around with a curves adjustment and find a setting that makes the sky look outstanding. Unfortunately, it makes the other subjects in your photo too contrasty or dark. This is a case where separation of the sky from the rest of the photo would be beneficial.

Mask Process

So you’ve identified the areas you want to separate from each other (1). Before you do this, make sure you’ve done all your touch-ups so you don’t start working with the wrong image. Now convert your image to LAB color (Image >> Mode >> Lab Color). Go into the channels, select the Lightness Channel, and duplicate it to a new document (2) (Right Click >> Duplicate Channel…). The lightness channel is going to contain the best quality information, but you can use one of the RGB/CMYK channels just the same. Now delete the LAB conversion in your history palette of the original image to go back to RGB without doing another conversion.

In your new image, convert from Multichannel to Grayscale (Image >> Mode >> Grayscale). Now you should have one layer and one channel that look exactly the same. From this image, we want to darken the darks and lighten the lights to the point that we have just a black & white stencil of one region in the photo. Cool, now add a levels adjustment layer to the image. You’ll want to bring the black point up (3) and the white point down (4) until you have a mask. It’s okay to have some off-spots in either the white or black region, because you can go back over them with a pencil (5). This particular image required a black point around 147 and a white point around 229, plus a little penciling-in to darken some of the grays inside the building.

This levels adjustment is the most important step in the process. The goal is to bring the black point up just far enough to get a good solid outline around your subject. Same with the white, bring it down just far enough to whiten around the boundaries. If you take either adjustment too far, you’ll end up converting the remaining mid-tones into blacks or whites. This will produce a mask that’s too sharp and either too bulky or skimpy for the original image. This matters because the mask will cause your image adjustments to give off halos if it’s not created just right.

The mask is ready to go back home, but it’s a good idea to keep this document open in case you need to make some adjustments to the mask or the levels adjustment layer. Just duplicate the channel (not layer) back into the original document (Right Click >> Duplicate Channel…). This channel will be available in every layer as an “alpha” channel, or extra channel. You can use it to create layer masks for specific adjustment layers such as levels or curves.

To do this, pick your mask channel and load it as a selection (Select >> Load Selection…), or you can select it’s inverse if need be. In the Channels palette, click on the RGB channel to bring back the original image. Now, with your selection, when you apply a new adjustment layer it will automatically be masked off based on your selection. You can also apply the mask to existing adjustment layers by duplicating the channel into the mask channel.

That’s it. It’s pretty simple, but there are a lot of variations on this you can use to create masks for isolating certain tones or subjects within the image. You can also fine tune the mask by applying things like blur, sharpening, burning, dodging, etc. To see how I applied this mask to the photo, see my post titled Dark Architecture.

Also, a big thank you to Lee for asking the question. If any of you have other questions about how I do something, or just questions in general, don’t hesitate to ask. Chances are, the question will result in a whole post dedicated to the subject. And there’s also a good chance that you’re not the only one who has the question. Ask, ask, ask.

Golden Hyacinth

Here’s another photo of the purple hyacinth flowers in my backyard, but now they’ve opened up a little since the last time I shot them. I took this photo with the intent of leaving most of the subject blurry, so I shot at f/2.8 — wide open on my macro lens. I focused (by moving the camera) to leave only the tip of the closest petal sharp. I framed it vertical because the flower was pointing upward, and I intentionally cut off parts of the flower from both sides because it looked better to me that way. The only thing I wish I would have done differently is place the subject a little higher in the frame — but it’s not completely terrible now.

Golden Hyacinth

The editing on this photo was part intentional and part accidental (I’ll get to that). The JPEG image (1) turned out okay, but you can see that the white balance is a little warm and the dynamic range is not wide enough for this photo — the highlights and shadows are both clipped a little bit. You can see from the RAW conversion (2) in Adobe’s ACR that I managed to save the highlights and fix the colors. The bright spots on the nearest petal was a little too bright for me, so I painted in some color (3) on an additional layer to dull it down a little bit and prevent it from being distracting. Then the whole image got a curves adjustment layer in Photoshop CS3 to darken it (4) — I tried going bright, contrasty, dark, and I liked the dark photo the best. The next layer was a slight dodging (5) done with a curves adjustment layer and a mask, followed by a slight burning (6) with another curves adjustment layer and a mask. The mask on these adjustment layers started off completely black, and I used a soft brush with 5% opacity to paint in some white on the mask. The next step is where the accident happened. I opened up the channels palette to turn a layer mask visible (to check on something), and I accidentally turned off the blue channel instead. The while image went from purple to gold! I actually liked it, so I decided to apply this effect to the photo. To turn off the blue channel (7), I applied a channel mixer adjustment layer, I went into the blue channel output, and I pulled the blue slider from 100% to 0%. Presto! Then I went back and did a few touch-ups to my burning and dodging adjustment layer masks. The last step was a targeted sharpening (8) with the unsharp mask on a copy of the merged layer output. I masked the sharpened layer and painted in the sharpness just on the tip of the closest petal. Done!

Golden Hyacinth

Photo by Brian Auer
04/14/07 Flemington, NJ
Golden Hyacinth
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D
Sigma MACRO 105mm f/2.8 EX DG
158mm equiv * f/2.8 * 1/30s * ISO100

Working With Image Histograms

For photographers, understanding light and color is a very important skill to learn. These are the basic elements of a photograph, and they will make or break your shot. The histogram is a vital tool for assessing the light and color in an image, yet it’s not widely used or understood by many people yielding a camera. Understanding the histogram will not only help while taking photos, but also with post-processing.

In the images below, I’ve shown (from top to bottom and left to right) the histograms for the red channel, green channel, blue channel, RGB composite, and Luminosity. Each histogram tells us something different about the photo. The color histograms show the distribution of specific color components with the left of the histogram representing no color (0% color saturation) and the right representing full color (100% color saturation). The RGB composite histogram is a combination of all three color histograms and it represents the tonal range for that image. The Luminosity histogram shows the distribution of luminance (brightness) values from black to white.


The shape of a histogram is not terribly important, but there are several key pieces of information that can be drawn from them. The spread of the histogram relates to contrast, meaning that a very narrow histogram will be representative of a low contrast image while a histogram that covers most of the scale will be higher contrast. Peaks in the histogram can tell you whether you have a high key or low key photo, or a very high contrast photo if you have a peak at each end of the histogram.

Clipping can be identified with the histogram, which causes a loss of data. Color clipping occurs when the individual color histograms are shifted so far to the right that one or more colors are at 100% saturation for a group of pixels. This means that you lose tonal contrast in those pixels for that color, but it’s not always detrimental to a photo. Luminance clipping is a much more serious crime in photography. If the luminosity histogram is clipped at either end, you’ve lost information in either the shadows or highlights (or both). No amount of editing can bring back that portion of the image.


How is any of this usable when taking photos? Well, most cameras have a histogram display in the playback mode. Some cameras just show the RGB composite, some show luminance, and others will give you everything. Your camera is only capable of capturing a certain range of tones, which is lower than what your eye can capture. This is your camera’s dynamic range — dynamic because it can be shifted using exposure controls. If it looks good through the viewfinder, it doesn’t mean that it will look good in the camera. A quick check of the histogram can tell you if you’re trying to capture a higher than possible range of light, if you’re shifted to one side or the other, and if you’ve got any clipping in the shadows or highlights.

At a minimum, it’s a good idea to check the histogram for clipping each time you change scenes. I typically check on my first shot to see if I need any exposure adjustments. If I’m clipping highlights, I’ll bring the exposure down to shift the histogram. If I’m clipping shadows, I’ll bring the exposure up to shift the histogram. If I’m clipping both, I’ll bring the exposure down to salvage the highlights. Blown out highlights are typically more distracting to an image than under exposed shadows. If I really want to get the whole range, I’ll bracket my shot and bring them together as a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image.

There’s nothing more frustrating than getting back to review your shots of the day to find that several sets are either under exposed or over exposed. Sometimes you can’t go back and do it again, so get it right the first time.

So in summary: left is dark, right is bright, clipping is bad, salvage the highlights, and check you camera’s histogram often.

Here are a few more sites that go more in depth on the subject:

If you have any other tips on histograms (or corrections to my explanation), make a comment and share your knowledge.

Dark Architecture

This was another building from my last trip to the Princeton Campus here in New Jersey. My Dad and I were doing a little exploring last time he was out for a visit. Some of the buildings there are really something to look at. It’s hard to believe that they use these buildings on a regular basis. This one had kind of a stout feeling to it because of the general size of the building. I made it look even bigger by shooting at 18mm with my 18-200mm lens. It has barrel distortion at the low end so it causes the buildings verticals to converge from the perspective I was shooting at. Some people will say that’s unprofessional, but I think it adds character is certain cases. I framed the shot with the branches from nearby trees, trying not to let them overlap too much of the building.

Dark Architecture

The JPEG (1) on this looked okay, but the overall colors of the building and sky were just too bland for me. When I processed the RAW file (2), I actually kept the color saturation down because I knew I would be converting to black & white and I didn’t want to introduce any additional color noise or artifacts. To convert to black and white (3), I used the Photoshop CS2 channel mixer at 0% red, 0% green, and 100% blue — basically just the blue channel. Then I had to create a mask to separate the sky from the building and branches so I could adjust each separately. Once I had my mask I applied it to a levels adjustment layer for the building (4) and boosted the contrast by bringing the white point down to 137 and bringing the black point up to 55, which clipped some of the shadows. I used the same mask to apply a curves adjustment layer to the building (5) with a moderate “S” curve to separate the tones a little better. The building was looking pretty good, so I went to work on the sky. I inverted the layer mask from the previous steps and applied it to a levels adjustment (6) in which I brought the black point up to 223 and I left the white at 255. There was almost no detail left in the sky, but I managed to pull a little bit of a gradient out of it. I wanted to add a little more darkness to it so I added a layer of vignetting (7). The last step was a tiny amount of sharpening (8).

Dark Architecture

** You can also see this photo on Zooomr and Flickr **

Photo by Brian Auer
11/07/06 Princeton, NJ
Dark Architecture
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D
Konica Minolta AF DT 18-200
27mm equiv * f/9.5 * 1/125s * ISO100

The Evolution Of My Photography Gear

After getting more photo gear in the mail today, I just realized how much stuff I have acquired in my quest to become a better photographer. It’s been four years since I started that quest, and I didn’t even realize what I was getting into when I started. Here’s my story.

Prior to 2003, I had a piece of junk 35mm point and shoot camera — the kind you take pictures with when you go on vacation, only to have about half of them turn out bad. I had no intentions of getting into photography, and I was perfectly happy with that. Then something happened.

2003 – The Beginning

My son was born. We found ourselves taking more photos than we ever had before. The film was getting to be a hassle. It was about this time that digital cameras were picking up in the consumer market. In April of 2003 we picked up an Olympus D560 at 3.2 megapixels and 3x zoom at a price of $300. It was good to us, and we took over 4500 photos with it before it died of telescoping lens failure in February 2005. Just before its death, our second child was born and we were taking even more photos.

2005 – Going Deeper

With a new baby in the house, we couldn’t go without a camera. By this time I had my taste of photography. It grew on me and I was intrigued by it. I did my homework and found a nice ultra-zoom that would give me a little more room for growth. In February of 2005, I picked up a Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3 at 4.0 megapixels and 12x zoom at $400. I was still taking lots of kid pictures, but I started taking photos of other things too. I was exploring the camera controls and learning how to compose my shots better. I also started working with Photoshop more heavily at this point. It’s been a great camera that really made me serious about photography, and it’s still alive and well today with over 5500 photos under its belt.

2006 – Getting Serious

There came a point when the ultra-zoom started holding me back from growing as a photographer — March of 2006. I got myself a birthday present. After doing months of research on dSLRs, I came to the conclusion that I was getting a Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D (now the Sony Alpha is the closest equivalent) with a 6 megapixel sensor and all kinds of buttons and knobs. I spent $1100 on the camera body only to find out that a few months later they were bought out by Sony and my camera was selling at WalMart for $500. I was ticked, but oh well. I also picked up a Konica Minolta Maxxum 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (which now only has a Sony equivalent) as my first glass for around $450. Within a month, I picked up the Minolta 3600HS flash unit for another $300 along with a backpack, cheap tripod, lens cleaning kit, UV filter, extra battery, and extra memory card for an additional $350 or so. I was in heaven. But I was also out $2300. It didn’t matter because I was in heaven. I’ve taken over 3500 shots with the camera so far. All the while, I’ve been keeping up with the latest versions of Photoshop — from version 6 through CS3.

A few months after I got my camera, we decided to pick up a pocket camera for everyday stuff that would be easier to travel with than the DiMAGE. In June of 2006 we got an Olympus u720SW at 7 megapixels and $400 because it was shockproof and waterproof — essential for traveling in my wife’s purse. It’s been a good little camera, and it fits right into my pocket when I don’t want to lug my monster around. We’ve only taken about 1300 photos with it, but it’s still young.

I’ve also started getting photo gear for Christmas. This last year, my parents picked me up a Giottos MM-9160 monopod and a Kenko 25mm Uniplus Extension Tube. Hooray!

2007 – Going Overboard

Is that the end? No. Not yet. In March of 2007 (for my birthday again) I picked up two new lenses. I wanted something that would go well with my already versatile 18-200mm lens. I ended up getting a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro lens for around $350 and a Sigma 10-20mm f/4-6.3 EX DC HSM for around $470. I haven’t put a lot of miles on them yet, but they’re a lot of fun to shoot with. I also decided that it was time for a nicer tripod so I got a Slik Pro 700DX ($130) and a Slik AF2100 Pistol Grip Ballhead ($80). That tripod is bulletproof. I just got it in the mail, and I started playing with it — what a difference!

What’s Next?

Is THAT the end? I thought so, but Michael Brown is putting bad ideas in my head with reversing rings and 50mm primes. Darn that guy! Next year, I want to pick up a super telephoto… something like the Tamron 200-500mm f/5-6.3. I had my eye on that one, but I opted for the two lenses instead. I also want to get a ring flash and a macro focusing rail eventually, but I haven’t picked them out yet. And someday, when my camera dies, I’ll probably pick up one of the new Sony dSLRs that have yet to be released.

Did any of you “experienced” photographers go through the same type of evolution? Exponential spending, more equipment than you can drag around with you?

And are any of you “less than experienced” photographers going through the same evolution? I’m not trying to “brag” about the photo gear I have (it’s really not much compared to a pro), I’m trying to give a heads up to any of you heading down the path of serious photography — it’s not cheap, and it’s addictive.

Am I normal, or just an obsessive spender heading for the poorhouse? Either way, I’m having a good time.