Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Into the Daylight ~ Flash Photography and Old Cars

With a big car event coming up, I was excited to try my hand at lighting up one of my favorite subjects.  Nothing serious, of course.  I'm retired and don't need nor want to impress anyone.  No, this is just for the pleasure of pursuing a topic, understanding as much as I can, and to make an image or two that please me and only me.

I've been reading too many articles by David Hobby and Joe McNally.  I seem to have caught the bug to shoot small flash.  Here was yet Another Itch that needed to be Scratched.  Photographically speaking.

To add another Itchy Spot to the Whole Plot, just the other day I read a very short article on how to photograph HotRods.  The difference between what this article talked about (shooting in open shade) and what I would be doing is that I'd be working under partly cloudy to full sun conditions

I have three Cheap Chinese Flash units that I've picked up over the years.  My calculations indicated I might _just_ be able to augment the power of the sun and make my subjects standout a bit from a slightly under-exposed background.  That would be the goal.

My camera setups would be as follows -

  • Sony A7 - set to full manual mode (stored settings as M1)
  • Nikon Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai
  • Polarizing filter

My second camera would be -

  • Sony A6000 - also set to full manual mode (again stored settings as M1)
  • Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5
  • Lens Turbo II focal reducer
  • Polarizing filter

It all seems a silly thing to in this Day and Age use manual focus Nikkors.  Working with AF lenses and meter-coupled apertures would certainly be a faster, more accurate way to proceed, right?  Well...

There were several competing ideas that swirled around my (sometimes empty) brain.  One, as I've already said, was to use flash to brighten the subject relative to the background.  Another idea was to see how wide I could get the aperture so as to blur the background.  And the third swirling idea was to use a Polarizing filter to try and control reflections off shiny, painted, waxed surfaces.

In short, I would be trying to manage complexities in a discrete, one thing at a time, manner.  It's sometimes important to keep an Aging Mind well exercised.  Or so I'm told, but I can't remember who said it.  I made a joke there.  Did you get it?

I love the "idea" of my Nikkor lenses.  Manual focus.  Beautiful out of focus rendition when shot wide open.  Manual aperture settings so I know exactly where I'm at.  Of course, shooting in broad daylight would mean stopping lenses down and potentially sharpening up the entire scene with good depth of field.

Fortunately the (old hand calculated designs based on history and practical knowledge) Nikkors are by current standards (of computer ray traced designs solving for 11th order effects) brilliantly sharp stopped down.  

I have modern AF Top Drawer lenses as well as many old Nikkors, and, frankly, from one click down on the aperture it's awfully difficult to tell any difference between them.  So, with a few mental gymnastics I was able to convince myself to use the old Nikkors.

For the Cheap Chinese Flash setup, here's what would be used - 

  • Three Yongnuo YN560 flash units
  • A cheap three flash mount bracket
  • A cheap flash stand
  • A RF/FM remote trigger system consisting of
    • On-camera trigger
    • Two remote flash hot-shoe'd receivers

All I needed to do when switching cameras from 24mm to 55mm and back again would be to slip the on-camera RF/FM trigger from one body to the other.

To make a complex situation more complex, I packed a 2-stop ND filter.  This would allow me to open up the aperture, well, by 2 stops.  If I did this right, I would be able to explore what happens to a scene when both sun-enhancing flash and narrower depth of fields are used in tandem.  The effect might be interesting.

So how did my little experiment of shooting the all manual, maybe needlessly complex setup end up?  Not 1/2 bad, actually.  Let's have a look, shall we?

This was done under full sun (to my right).  I put the flash units to the right as well, set their power to 1/4 and under-exposed the overall scene by 1/2 a stop.  The depth of field is a little too good and the background is a bit distracting to my eyes.  Though, the scene is well placed with the view of the large buildings in the background.  I like the way the flashes did their jobs to bring the bike out of the mess.  Even if it's just a little.

le traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022


Shooting against the sun, setting the flash to my left, and putting the power at 1/4 or 1/2 on all three units I was able to blast the Holy Heck out of the Buick.  The overall scene was under-exposed by, again, 1/2 stop.  I like the effect.  The people and the trees in the background at back-lit.  So would the car be if I hadn't painted the car in light the way I did.

la traversee de Paris ~ 2022


Three young ladies were being photographed by a local photographer.  They were using the cars as backdrops.  All three were "Miss" somethingorother.  This lady was Miss Montmartre. 

Had I not used fill-flash the scene would've been a lighting mess.  The sun was throwing very strong shadows off everything and the Jaguar XK-SS would've disappeared into an inky black hole where no light could escape.  I needed to flatten the contrast a little and to "open up" the Miss' far-side face if I could.

If you know me, you know I've owned several Jags in my life.  They were my childhood pinnacle of automobilisme.  They all had sexy lines and could push a gentleman smartly down the motorway at impressive speeds.

I'd read where the D-type race car had been lightly re-designed to take normal road-gear (bumpers, passenger seat, that kind of thing).  Very few were made, though, before that portion of the Jaguars factory burnt.  So it came as a huge surprise to see this car.  Sure, the young lady is pretty.  There's no doubt about that.  But that Jag?  Oh All Things That Are Holy this was glorious!!

I'm not sure if it's an original or a "continuation" version.  Somehow I just can't see someone driving a many-millions of Euros car around Paris just for the hell of it.  The insurance alone would cost a fortune.  So I'm thinking this must be a very accurate reproduction (perhaps even done up by the factory?).

la traversee de Paris ~ 2022

Early on in my little photo-session I balanced the overall scene exposure with the flash and let the flash simply fill the shadows.  Looking at the cameras LCD convinced me I liked the gentle effect that simple flash-fill might bring.

For this Renault Alpine the sun was was over to my left (almost, but not quite shooting against it) and it cast a strong shadow to the right.  So I placed the three flash setup to my right, set the power to 1/16 or 1/8 (rather low, whichever it was) and this is the image I came away with.

It's almost as if you can't see the effect of the flash.  If I wasn't talking about it, would a viewer even notice?  It's kind of interesting to think about in this way.

One more thing, look at the quality of the light.  Having worked with flash for decades I might've guessed that a large light modifier had been used to "soften" up the light.  But that's not the case at all.  The three flash units were all bare and no light modifiers were used at all.  This is just straight flash fill.

Renault Alpine ~ la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022


Lastly, we come to Coluche.  How the great French humorist comes to be associated with this Ford Fairlane is beyond me.  But there you have it.  Coluche's name is attached to this car.

Ford made this line of Fairlanes back in the 1950's.  By the late '50's Ford sold the factory, designs, tools, and everything to Simca. Simca continued to produce these cars for several years after.  I have to look at the badges to know which side of the Ford Sale any particular car comes from.

For this image the full sun was over left shoulder.  You can see the flash-filled shadow from the sun on the ground to the right of the car.  The overall exposure was set to -1/2EV to knock down the sky a bit and to make the people darker.  

I set the three flashes power to full *pop* and set the stand to my right.  If you look at the cars fin in the center of the frame, you can just make out the shadow that the flash threw off the fin and onto the rear trunk.

To me this image really "pops."  It's filled with colors and shapes.  It "feels" interesting.  It fully expresses what I wanted to capture about these old cars that participate in le traversee de Paris.  All it took was three RF/FM controlled flash mounted on a cheap flash stand.

la traversee de Paris ~ 2022

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Another Up-Sizing look ~ automobiles in the wild and out on the streets of Paris

Years ago (as in 14 at this point) The Online Photographer had an article about how a photographer took a 4 megapixel sensor'd image and made glorious 13x19 inch prints.

 Here's what was said about the image - "This rider was going about 75 mph when the photo was taken, and you can see every stitch, vent perforation, and the pebble texture of the leather with excellent detail and clarity."

This has stuck with me over the years.  I've written several times about trying to simulate a similar up-sizing process using the Gimp.  My first attempt involved UnSharp Mask sharpening the basic file, up-sizing using the Cubic operation, and then USM sharpening again.  It was an interesting process, but there was always something slightly soft about my final results.

Two years ago I saw that RawTherapee came out with a "Capture Sharpen" function.  I didn't think about it too much at first about how it might related to up-sizing an image.  All I knew was that my images took on a sudden and happy increase in "sharpness" in their native sizes.

I guess I could step back and say that my early Canon DSLR images, at the time, felt "sharp" enough to me.  Then I experienced Sony's APS-C sensors and realized I my Canon gear was lacking.  More recently I've added a couple Sony full frame sensor'd A7 cameras to the Box of Toys.  These take to "Capture Sharpen" like ducks to water and are far sharper than any of my old Canon files that are also "Capture Sharpened".  If there is anything sharper, please, please show it to me.  I'd like to see it.

In 10 years I've moved from Canon "acceptable", "ya, that's pretty OK" sharpness to Sony "oh my ever loving gawd!" levels of sharpness.

When is "enough" enough?  I've been wrangling over the added cost of moving up the Food Chain a bit to acquire a 42mpixel Sony A7R2.  The additional pixels could make life better, right?  More, better, happiness.  Stay with the "in crowd" to maximize flexibility and overall image quality.  Perhaps rather shallow justifications for buying more camera equipment.

In similar time, or should I say "just in time", I stumbled across an interesting video where a guy makes rather large pleasing prints from an old 10mpixel Leica M8.  It immediately reminded me that perhaps I hadn't fully explored careful up-sizing processes.  

Between Stephen Sharf's process notes and seeing this video I then felt I might even save a few Louis d'Or or Pistoles by staying with a lower cost but still (hopefully) viable 24mpixel sensor'd solution.  For the price of one used Sony A7R2 (around 1100USD) I could have three used Sony A7 (around 400USD each).

Borrowing from 14 years ago to consider the idea of making 42mpixel sized prints by careful up-sizing 24mpixel image might prove "interesting."  Stephen Sharf  started with a 4mpixel (2464 x 1648 pixels) Canon 1D image and ended up with a 6840pixel x 4680pixel print file that looked, by all accounts, to be wonderful at 13x19 inches.


1. Each image is sharpened upon import into Photoshop using the Photokit Sharpener "Capture Sharpen" macro to recover detail lost by the sensor (effectively infinite number of photons, finite number of pixels).

2. Each image is then upressed using Bicubic Smoother in PS to give the pixel dimensions at 360 ppi.

3. The image is then sharpened for printing using Photokit Sharpener using the Inkjet, 360 dpi, Glossy sharpening macro.

4. The image is then exported to ImagePrint, a RIP, and printed on Stephen's old warhorse Epson 2400 using the appropriate color profile and ImagePrint to drive the printer.

5. The photo is then printed on InkJet Art Microceramic Lustre..."

Looking at my up-sizing process I thought about improvements I might make.  For the first sharpening step I could use RawTherapee's "Capture Sharpen" in place of the Gimp's various "smart sharpen" operators.

Second, I could use the Gimp's "NoHalo" up-sizing operator.  This would replace the "Cubic" operator that I had been using, and recently found to be soft compared with "NoHalo".  

Third, I could try various Gimp G'Mic sharpening operators to see if there was something demonstrably better than "UnSharp Mask."  To this end I find I like the G'Mic "Inverse Diffusion" sharpening operator.  I think it's really nice, particularly if I put a sharpened copy of the image in a layer and lower the opacity while observing the effect at 100 to 200 percent viewing sizes.

To test all this I took an image from a recent la traversee de Paris that I'd made using flash fill (three flash units, in fact, to try and keep up with the sun), a Sony A7, and a pretty little Nikon Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai lens.


Renault Alpine ~ la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022


Here is what I found.

Rawtherapee Capture Sharen Comparison


Keep in mind, I'm well aware of the fact I'm not adding ANY information to an up-sized file.  All I'm doing is smoothing ("spackeling", if you prefer) the transitions between expanded pixels.  This is, afterall, what Stephen did all those years ago, and he came away with good looking prints.

The comparison begins with the base 6000x4000pixel image unsharpened, followed by "Capture Sharpen" version.  I see a useful improvement in "sharpness."  The effect is rather dramatic, actually.  

The out of focus rendition wasn't much effected, though I did note higher contrast when using "Capture Sharpen" and perhaps a "grainier" feel to the out of focus region when pixel peeping. This would hold true for subsequent process variations, too.

Using the Gimp's "NoHalo" 9000x6000pixel up-sizing operation on an un-"Capture Sharpen"ed image I see overall smoothness in the image.  There is little to no objectionable noise and pixelation seems to be well under control.

Applying G'Mic "sharp" function called "Inverse Diffusion" to the base un-sharpened, up-sized image I see that things still look pretty nice.  Though I don't show it here, this result is "sharper" than using the Gimp's "Cubic" up-sizing operator and the Gimp's USM sharpener that I used in my earlier studies.

Considering the "NoHalo" up-sized "Capture Sharpen"ed image, I do have to say, that looks eminently printable straight away.  Artifacts introduced by up-sizing a "Capture Sharpen"ed image seem fairly well controlled, even though they are more evident than in the un-Capture Sharpened images.  We can see these artifact when "pixel-peeping", but they will be slightly masked in a final print.

The "Inverse Diffusion" sharpen operation applied to a "Capture Sharpen"ed image is simply too much.  Well, to my eyes, at least.  So to tame the overall effect down a bit, I put the "Inverse Diffusion" sharpened image in a layer and set the opacity to 40 percent.  This seemed to be a pretty good balance between too much noise with too many artifacts, and further increases in "sharpness."  Balanced in this way the image really "pops."

To this point in my investigations I feel the un-sharpened/NoHalo up-sized/Inverse Diffusion sharpened image is very nice and is probably quite printable as is.  

However, for the ultimate "pop" without the feeling of being "oversharpened", the Capture Sharpen/NoHalo up-size/Inverse Diffusion at 40percent opacity really rocks my boat.

I didn't stop there.

How it occurred to me I will never know, but I thought about having RawTherapee add just a hint of noise reduction early in the process to see if it had any effect on the intensity of the artifacts introduced by "Capture Sharpen" in an up-sized image.  

I'd recently come to understand the RawTherapee "Noise Reduction" operation can be very subtle when I want it to be.  It can also act like a heavy hammer when the ISO's are through the roof and the noise is so great I can't sleep at night.  No, I'd try to take a very soft hand to the low-ISO image noise to see if I could "knock off the edges" just a tiny, nearly un-noticable bit. 

I implemented the following process -

  • Import image to RawTherapee
  • "Capture Sharpen" image
  • "Noise Reduction" applied with minimal action on the sliders
  • Pass the "tif" image into the Gimp
  • Up-Size using "NoHalo"
  • G'Mic "Inverse Diffusion" sharpen image in a layer
  • Set sharpened image layer to 40percent opacity

Take a close look at the last two image sets and compare them with images further up the chart.  What do you see?  Not half bad, eh?

To encapsulate my current feelings of which would be "best" -

  • Quite "adequate" - RawTherapee un-sharpen base image/Gimp NoHalo upsize/G'Mic Inverse Diffusion sharpen

  • Amazing "pop" - Rawtherapee Capture Sharpen base image/Gimp NoHalo upsize/G'Mic Inverse Diffusion sharpen layer with opacity set to 40 percent

  • Pleasingly "luscious" - Rawtherapee Capture Sharpen + very subtle Noise Reduction of a base image/Gimp NoHalo up-sizing/G'Mic Inverse Diffusion sharpen layer with opacity set to 40 percent

After all is said and done... should I be able to take a 6000x4000 Sony sensor'd image, apply any of these three process versions, and come away with a beautifully printable image that is 48 inches long? ... maybe ... maybe yes...  quite possibly ...

Friday, August 05, 2022

Into the Daylight ~ a Cheap Chinese Flash Adventure

This is the ninth year I've shown up to photograph la traversee de Paris.  The event is run twice a year, once in early January and once in late July/early August.  Each time I go I try to find a different way to photograph the event, and each year I've tried to improve my "seeing" of the very common subject that is the automobile.

la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022

For this years summer event (the "estivale") I decided to try to separate automobiles from a darker background by using flash fill.  You've probably rightly guessed that I've read a bit too much Joe McNally and David Hobby.

Flash setup -

  • Three Yongnuo YN560 flash units
  • Mounted on a cold shoe bracket that takes the three flashes
  • Triggered by a cheap wireless FM RC setup -
    • Trigger on camera
    • Two receivers mounted to two of the three remote units
      • These two flash units to "M" - manual 
    • One of the flash units to "S1" - slave1

This allows all three flashes to trigger simultaneously.  

The whole plot was put on top of a cheap flash stand.  The off-camera stand allowed me good flexibility on where to place the lighting rig.  It can be far from the camera.  It can be lowered and put close to the subject.  I can move the lighting rig to the shadow side of the scene.  Or I could place the rig right up over the camera. In other words, in running cable-free RF triggered flash units I can arrange the rig as I feel the scene demands.

la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022

My biggest concern about this setup centered around Real World flash output.  I'd measured the output of these cheap Chinese flashes and the Guide Number is truly 22.  The published GN of 58 is wrong under the conditions I find myself in.  I feared that it would be a real challenge to get three flashes to balance and ultimately overpower the sun.

Camera setup

  • Sony A7 with stored setup in mode "M1" 
  • ISO100
  • 1/200th sec shutter speed (which I'd tested before leaving home to confirm the shutter wouldn't cut the upper portion of the frame)
  • White Balance set to "Daylight" (which in Sony World is 5025Kelvin - about 500Kelvin lower than I like as the flash is too blue, so I had to adjust in processing, and will need to set the WB manually to 5500 in the future and save it as part of my "M1" selection)
  • Nikon Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai manual focus lens adapted to the A7
  • Find the desired aperture setting by watching the exposure needles while turning the aperture ring

My original goal was to lightly over-drive the flash output to the background exposure.   I had intended to drop the metered exposure -1EV to -2EV.  

Yet once I was on scene and working I realized I kind of preferred setting the overall exposure as the multi-zone exposure system reported it at 0EV adjustment.  In the end this was a lucky choice.  It kept the sky from blowing out.  The non-sky portion of the scene was between -0.5EV, or perhaps -1.5EV, depending on where the sun was relative to the subject and the direction I pointed the lens in.  For the most part this was what I was looking for.

la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022

The day started out cloudy.  With overcast skies I could set the flash power on all three units between 1/8 and 1/4 power.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  The flash units could recycle quickly and I wasn't burning the batteries to the ground by having to use 1/2 or 1 Power all the time.

This would become my process.  Meter the scene by watching the needles move with respect to the aperture.  Take a shot.  Look at the result.  Adjust the flash  power output up or down depending on what I saw.

After the sun came out, I found I could put the three flash units between 1/2 to 1 (Full Pop) Power.  This rig could augment the sun and I could actually under-expose the overall scene by 1EV.  Since the flashes were doing their "thing" by blasting as much light as they could give, the subject was brought back into proper exposure.

la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022

The overall experience made me wish for a couple of things.  First, I wished for accurate GN's.  While GN22 got the job done, to not make the flashes work so hard I think I'll need to add one or two more units to the rig.

Certainly Sony, Nikon, and Canon all make accurate Guide Number claims.  To have three SB800, for instance, would add overall flexibility to my setup, but those are expensive.  Just one SB800 used on the open market would be more than I paid for the three Yongnuo's new.  Obviously you _do_ sometimes get what you pay for.

On the other hand, with a little DIY I should be able to add two more cold shoes if/when the time comes and I feel the need for more Cheap Chinese Light. 

la traversee de Paris estivale ~ 2022

 Image "Explore"'d on Flickr
7 August, 2022

The second thing I wished for is really a minor thing in the overall scheme of things.  For 30 percent of the photos I wish I'd dropped the metered exposure 1/2 stop further.  Some of my images, while looking pretty decent, could've benefited from a slightly darker background as a way to help make the primary subject "pop" a bit more.  The white Porsche 356 is a good example of that.  Compare this image to the Corvette above it and you'll perhaps understand my wish.