Tack Sharp Focus

Lucas Pilot Perth Australia 1024x683 Tack Sharp Focus

Lucas Pilot (Perth, Australia): D800 70-200mm shot at 175mm, f/2.8, 1/750sec & ISO 800. A shot of my son where I focused on his eyes. This was hand held using the stance described below. 

A couple of days ago I posted a process to calibrate your Autofocus which has served me very well.  Taking the time to make a proper focus target will help make the process easier and more enjoyable.  But what if your camera and lenses are fine and you are still not able to capture tack sharp images?  Well grab yourself a glass of Merlot, kick your feet up and read on…

Tack sharp images need to start at the bottom and work their way up.  Lets assume that you are hand holding your camera (while I love my tripod I do most of my work hand held) your focus will only be as good as your ability to hold the camera steady.  So lets keep it nice and simple…after all the trick is not “knowing” how to hold your camera but rather “remembering” to do it.  Flat, Shoulder, Brace.  Repeat it five times out loud.  This is your mantra for remembering the right position to get into for each and every shot.  As you lift the camera you should think “Flat, Shoulder, Brace“.

  •  Flat Feet: Keep your feet flat on the ground.
  •  Shoulder width apart: Pretend you are on a moving train or bus.
  •  Brace your arms: Your elbows should be against your body.

A good resource to see regarding how to brace your arms is Improve Photography and you can find that HERE.  I won’t repeat it as it is well covered there.  My only issue is that they do not give you a mental trigger to help remind you to do it.

They recommend getting a battery grip but I do not necessarily agree.  I have used one before and enjoyed it but here is the trouble with most grips….they add bulk and weight.  Nothing will hurt your photography form more than fatigue.  I say keep your camera as light as possible and keep repeating the mental trigger of “Flat, Shoulder, Brace”.

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 5.36.03 PM Tack Sharp Focus

Photo taken from Nikon web site. Please see link below.







The picture above comes from the Nikon site which has a very brief lesson on holding your camera.  While I think this is good enough as a reminder I do not believe they show as much detail as Improve Photography in terms of bracing your elbows.

Proper Hold 1024x1024 Tack Sharp Focus

I took this selfie to show you what you should do with your elbows.  This is the “Brace” that I mention above. The red circles are where some attention needs to be paid.  The elbows need to be tucked in and your left hand needs to be under the camera.

For those of you who want to see this in video please have a look here at Greg Cazillo’s YouTube video.  It is a short two minute affair but he shows you what he usually sees that is incorrect.  I like his videos however I should warn you that they are VERY basic.

And that covers it.  Finished the Merlot already?  Nice and simple.  Flat, Shoulder, Brace.  If you practice a bit and repeat the mantra every time you pick up your camera you will find that more of your shots are tack sharp as you will avoid moving or shaking your camera.



Autofocus Calibration First Aid

Brothers Perth Australia 1024x683 Autofocus Calibration First Aid

Brothers (Perth, Australia): D800 70-200mm shot at 200mm, f/2.8, 1/60sec and ISO 100. This was focused on my youngest son’s eyes and is tack sharp in that area.

There are a few basic tenants of photography that cannot be ignored and one of the most absolute is that something in the image needs to be in focus.  I do not mean more or less in focus…I mean it has to be TACK sharp.

I love an image that has great Image Quality and whose subject is absolutely sharp.  The image can be of questionable artistic value but I can appreciate the technical aspects involved in getting such an image.  Even looking at all the images I have shot the ones that I consider tack sharp are in the minority.

I have decided to write up a three post special focused on how to ensure your images are tack sharp.  To be clear there is very little “new” information in photography and going through various sites I have found several that have written on this topic very well.  I will give references whenever appropriate to document where you can go for more information or better help.

So, in proper Transit fashion vill up the glass with Merlot, kick up the feet and settle in for some photography shop talk.

Lesson 1: Autofocus Calibration

Every camera and lens manufacturer builds to a certain specification.  They build their internal quality standards in order to deliver consistent output.  Obviously they build within a certain tolerance which means that each lens or camera that comes off the assembly line are not EXACT copies of one another.  They are nearly identical and how “nearly” depends on their tolerance.

But what happens when you get a camera or lens that is on one extreme of the tolerance?  The result can be (although not always) a lens that does not focus where it is supposed to be.

When you pick up a lens you might feel that the lens is a bit “soft” and you may hunt for a properly focused image.  When this happens you need to go back to basics.  You need to remove as many variables that can affect your camera’s ability to focus (see the next couple of posts on this topic). If you still feel that a lens is soft then you need to get a little more serious and do some Autofocus Calibration First Aid.

I have seen plenty of forums that tell everyone that their camera and lenses are fine and the issue is with the shooter.  This might indeed be the case but since Autofocus Calibration is so easy to do I feel that deterring someone from testing their lens is lazy.  If you want to test your lens then go for it!  It might even be fun.

Prepare the Tools:

Autofocus Test Chart 768x1024 Autofocus Calibration First Aid

Autofocus Calibration can be done at home but you need to prepare a little bit.  I have fun doing this part as it reminds me of the art projects I did as a boy in school.

  1. Download an Autofocus Test Chart.  I use Jeffrey Friedl’s test chart found here. I like it because it is simple and he does a great job explaining how to properly print it.
  2. Get matte adhesive paper.  Trust me on this one.  Matte paper will prevent reflections of light and will help ensure your camera has the best chance to autofocus.  Follow Jeffrey’s instructions on how to print.
  3. Stick the test chart to some stiff cardboard.  Make sure it is FLAT and stuck on well.

That is it.  You are set up.  You have your reusable test chart and are ready to go.

Autofocus Calibration Stand:

You will need to set up your test chart on a stable platform.  You need it at a 45 degree angle.  I found that the best was to borrow my daughters music stand that allows you to adjust the angle at which the music sits.  I then taped it into place to ensure the wind would not blow it over.

Please note that the shot below was taken in some uneven lighting. This is only for the picture.  All the tests need to be in consistent lighting.

Autofocus Test Stand 683x1024 Autofocus Calibration First Aid

Please note that the dappled lighting here cannot be used when testing lenses. Find constant light.

As you can see in the picture below it is easy to put it on a 45 degree angle.

Autofocus Test Stand 2 1024x1024 Autofocus Calibration First Aid

The final bit of kit you will need is a tripod.  The make, model or color really does not matter.  Just make sure it is sturdy.

Calibration First Aid:

Now would be a great time to refill that glass.  Everything up until now has been fun.  Now we have to do some fairly repetitive tasks and most importantly we have to trust our eyes!  So believe me it is a good time for a refill of Merlot.

Place your camera and the lens you wish to test on the tripod.  Make sure it is secure.  Put is between 2 and 8 meters from the test chart.  How much will depend on the focal length of your lens.  If it is 24-70 two meters should be fine.  If it is 70-200 then take it out a bit more.

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 2.40.04 PM Autofocus Calibration First Aid

This picture is drawn as if looking from the top. The camera must be square with the test chart.

Make sure your camera is level on the tripod.  Then ensure that the test chart is completely square with the camera.  The only angle you want is the 45 degree tilt of the chart.

Once everything is physically set up and then prepare your camera.

  1. Set your camera to aperture priority and set it for the widest aperture (the smallest F-Stop number).  For example my Nikon 24-70mm was set at f/2.8.
  2. If your lens is a zoom lens then zoom so that the paper takes up the majority of the frame.
  3. You need to have a fast shutter speed.  Anything over 1/60 of a second should be ok but try to get it a bit faster if possible.
  4. Set it to self timer and set that at 2 seconds.  You can do this or use a remote trigger.  The idea is not to move the camera when it is taking its shot.  Movement can easily be confused with poor focus.
  5. The focus point should be on the central line.
Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 2.51.32 PM 300x233 Autofocus Calibration First Aid

Ensure the focus point does not touch anything but the middle line.








Now manually move the focus to infinity and press the shutter release allowing autofocus to grab the focus and take the shot.  Manually move the focus to the other extreme and press the shutter again.  The idea is to have autofocus move the focus from one extreme to where it believes the focus should be.

After taking several shots (to see if the shots are repeatable) then switch to live view and focus manually.  This is the control image that you will compare the other images to.  Download the pictures and compare them side by side in Lightroom.  They should be the same.  If they are not you will need to apply a manual calibration for that lens.  Look to your camera manual to find out how.

Final Test: 

This is what I call the real world test.  Here you want to find different distance objects to capture to see how your focus is doing.

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 3.34.39 PM Autofocus Calibration First Aid





Here I chose some objects on a string.  I got low and shot at an angle to show some depth.  I focused right where the red box is.  On lightroom I zoomed in and found that the focus was dead on.

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 3.35.30 PM 1024x712 Autofocus Calibration First Aid

What did I find when I tested my own lenses? Well it turned out my gut feeling was right all along.  My 70-200mm lens was tack sharp on focus.  My 85mm was about right.  But my 24-70mm was way off.  I ended up putting a -12 adjustment and found that to work.  This is a pretty large adjustment considering that my Nikon allows for up to a +20 to -20 adjustment.

This is a simple project for a lazy Sunday and the rewards are amazing.  Even if you do not need to adjust your lenses at all it is worth the effort to know that your lenses and cameras are calibrated together.


Shots Revisited

In Prayer Bali Indonesia 1024x821 Shots Revisited

In Prayer (Bali, Indonesia): D800 70-200mm shot at 155mm, f/2.8, 1/250sec & ISO 100.

I have written a few posts about the importance of going back and re-editing images that you took long ago.  Processing software changes as does our style.  By revisiting an old shot we can process it in new ways and see subtle differences between shots.

The shot above is a clear example of the benefits of revisiting a shot.  I had originally processed it with a two tone coloring that I liked a great deal.  With time I have moved away from that style and want the image to stand on its own merits.  Very little PP was done on this one.

The shot below is one of my favorite portraits and is of a man on a scooter with a rooster.  Rooster fighting is a big deal in Bali and while I would never watch a match I was thrilled when this man came driving by and was willing to stop for an image.

Man with Rooster Balis Indonesia 1024x819 Shots Revisited

Man with Rooster (Bali, Indonesia): D800 85mm shot at 85mm, f/1.8, 1/250sec & ISO 400.

The Value of a Photograph

Sabrina and Lucas with Patrick CDC Mexico 1024x768 The Value of a Photograph

Sabrina Lucas with Patrick (CDC, Mexico): Finepix S3000. This was taken by my wife with a point and shoot that friends bought me as a going away present.

I was reading “Amateur Photography”  the other day and realized that an author of a column that I enjoyed reading was looking to retire.  His final column tells us that he is questioning the meaning of photography as he sees little point to it.  His ex-wife recently passed and he was looking through his old photos and really liked seeing the shots of his family.  The wonderful landscape shots, macros or architectural shots really held little value to him.

Dena Patrick and Lucas Houston Texas 1024x826 The Value of a Photograph

Dena Patrick and Lucas (Houston, Texas): This was the day we brought home my son from the hospital. The photo was taken by a caring nurse.

So he presents the question which is if all the work we put into creating a wonderful landscape shot is worth our time.  In the end would be better off not focusing our photography on the things that really matter?

These questions got me looking through my hard-drives of pictures and I noticed an interesting trend.  Years ago, before I purchased my first DSLR, my photography was limited to my family.  I did not take many pictures and they were always of family and friends.  When we went to wonderful places my shots were limited to posing a family member in front of a scene and taking the shot.

As my interest in photography increased I began taking other types of pictures.  Sunrises, mountains, macro and landscapes.  The number of shots I was taking jumped as everything seemed to be a potentially interesting picture.

Three Generations Colonia Uruguay 931x1024 The Value of a Photograph

Three Generations (Colonia, Uruguay): Shot taken with a Sony point and shoot. Here is my wife, her mother and our two kids (before our third was born).

As my photography skills increased, the absolute number of images decreased and the quality increased.  I had more interesting shots and less trash (I never throw away and image but frankly do not know why).

The one thing that remained the same are the shots of my family and friends.  Oh the quality has improved and the number of shots has increased but the fact is that I still love taking pictures of my family.  My walls are covered in pictures of my family that I shot and they mean the world to me.  They mark the passage of time, allow me to relive memories and provide me with a tangible artifact of the people that I love.

So I suggest that one form of photography does not need to negate another.  Do I expect my pictures to be stored or remembered after I am gone?  Nope.  Not a single one.  Except those I take of my family as I believe my kids will enjoy having those links to their past as well.

Three Generations BsAs Argentina 1024x768 The Value of a Photograph

Three Generations (BsAs, Argentina): This was another FinePix camera shot. Here we have my grandmother, father and my son Lucas. The people in the back are family as well. This shot reminds me of the wonderful family diners we had. Note the wonderful table cloth and place settings.

I take pictures because I enjoy it.  I like the technology, the art and challenge of capturing the best image I can.  That enjoyment is the end of my hobby.  The actual image is my trophy and like my high school trophies they mean little to me now.

Sorry for the Silence

Screen Shot 2014 07 06 at 5.48.46 PM Sorry for the Silence

Silence is a precious commodity these days except when it comes to communications from family and friends.  So I do apologize for my recent absence but things got busy at work and then the World Cup intervened.  Yes I follow the World Cup and have since 1986 when I recall watching Argentina march to glory.

The World Cup is something that I look forward to about a year before it actually arrives.  I begin looking at each team to judge their ability for myself.  For the last 24 years Argentina has not made the Semi-Finals.  The last time they did was in 1990 and I can remember it very clearly.

So for 24 years we have been asked to wait and accept average performance from our team.  Every four years I begin to believe that we can indeed win and I have been disappointed for 24 years!

Screen Shot 2014 07 06 at 6.23.59 PM Sorry for the Silence

Now I look and am thrilled that we have gotten to the Semi-Final match.  I am genuinely happy and will be thrilled with whatever result is.  As far as I am concerned we have reached the top four teams of the world and is enough to keep me smiling.


Iconic Shots are Still Needed

Trevi Fountain HDR Rome Italy 1024x794 Iconic Shots are Still Needed

Trevi Fountain HDR (Rome, Italy): D800 14-24mm shot at 14mm, f/2.8, 1/250sec & ISO 100.

So this week I have explored how peer pressure alters our travel photography style and the benefits of shooting non-iconic shots in order to capture a bit of the sense of place of a location.  These, usually detail shots, are usually the one that most people comment on.  They are fun to shoot and very low pressure.

Obviously when shooting an iconic image you are competing with the thousands of images that others have taken of the site.  It is important to make your stand out, or at least make it easily forgotten.  It is rather embarrassing to take a shot of an iconic image and have people wonder what it is.

On our first day in Rome I captured the above image of the Trevi Fountain.  I took a handful of shots and then I walked away from the crowds to enjoy life in Rome.  I am thrilled I captured it and must admit that it is not very exciting but it allowed me to focus on other images as well as on the wine….and food…..and people.

So take those iconic images but remember to take pictures of the details of the things that makes a place special.

Unexpected Location Defining Shots

Wild Wellington NZ 1024x683 Unexpected Location Defining Shots

Wild (Wellington, NZ): D800 24-70mm shot at 24mm, f/2.8, 1/3000 sec & ISO 100.

While peer pressure does drive some of our photography it is rarely the iconic monument shot that makes people understand a location.  It is the shots of the people, or shots of the details that make life so unique.

In the shot above you see the granite wording with enough detail in the background to show the port, wonderful sky and the sailboats that help make the waterfront of Wellington so wonderfully inviting.

In the shot below you have the cobblestone streets outside of the Parliament building in Rome.  The tent of a protestor can be seen in the back with a well dressed business man walking in a purposeful manner.

At the Feet of Parlament Rome Italy 819x1024 Unexpected Location Defining Shots

At the Feet of Parliament (Rome, Italy): D800, 24-70mm shot at 24mm, f/2.8, 1/500sec & ISO 100.

These two images help show a bit of the texture of their cities.  While not iconic by any stretch of the imagination, these images do help convey a sense of place.

Expected Shots

Lighthouse Overlook Castlepoint New Zealand 1024x691 Expected Shots

Lighthouse Overlook (Castlepoint, NZ): D800 24-70mm shot at 24mm, f/8, 1/500sec & ISO 100.

Peer pressure is something that drives virtually everyone in this world.  The expectations of our friends and family drives much of what we do, so it should be of no surprise that this influences our photography.

I was watching a travel photography class on Kelby Training and he mentioned the importance of creating a shot list while on vacation, and the need to shoot the iconic images first.  Both of these hints are really designed to ensure that you do capture the images your family and friends expect to see from your location.

Paris has the Eiffel Tour, Sydney has the Opera House, London has Big Ben and San Francisco has the Golden Gate.  No travel photography trip to any of these locations would be complete without an image of their iconic sites.

When traveling for work to Wellington New Zealand I had no idea what kind of shot would be considered iconic.  Soon after my arrival I began to see all these images of a lighthouse.  A little bit of digging and I found out where it was and that, as chance would have it, I would be seeing it during a geological tour I had signed up for.

Dock Tie Wellington NZ 1024x683 Expected Shots

Dock Tie (Wellington, NZ): D800 24-70mm shot at 48mm, f/8, 1/90sec & ISO 100.

Image captured I walked away with a sense of freedom as now I could focus not he little details that make Wellington such a unique place.

Film Dollars & Cents

Aussie Beachtown OM 1 Ilford 400 1024x734 Film Dollars & Cents

Aussie Beachtown Ilford400 (Freo, Australia): OM-1, 50mm

If you see my original “Time to go Retro” post, what drew me to film was seeing that the industry was spending millions on altering the new, digital cameras to feel more like film cameras.  If the aim of “Retro” is to go back to a simpler time and the ultimate goal is to produce a digital camera as close to film as possible, then why not jump straight to film?

There are two big drawbacks to going back to film that need to be addressed.  For one thing it alters the digital workflow, which means that we may lose some creative control of post processing images.  This can be dealt with following my last post of Film to Digital Workflow.

The other is cost.  A digital exposure is free, which means you can shoot thousands of shots without worrying about cost.  But is this really true?

A digital camera that can shoot with enough quality to rival film will cost you some real money.  If I look at my camera of choice the D800 it ran me around $3,000 which would pay for plenty of film and processing!

So looking closely at the economic side of the equation we have the camera which I got for free but is readily available on E-Bay.  Lets say it is a $200 investment with a 50mm lens.  Film runs around $10 for a 36 exposure roll and processing was $30.  This means that I could shoot my first 1,000 images at a cost of:

  •  $200 for the camera
  •  1,000 images / 36 = 28 rolls
  •  28 rolls x $10 = $280
  •  28 rolls x $30 = $840

For a grand total of $1,320.  Compared with my D800 whose first 1,000 images cost me $3,000.  Obviously once you start looking at over 2,700 photos then the D800 starts becoming cheaper.  But that is a whole bunch of pictures!

The point of the economic calculations above is to prove that film is not all that expensive.  If you look at processing your own film, I am sure you could reduce this cost considerably but if you are looking at shooting thousands of pictures then the digital camera is the way to go.

I decided to go with film to learn a little more about this medium.  To digital photographers film is a bit daunting.  It is so final, and mistakes are expensive.  But the cameras are lighter, better built (my camera was purchased in 1974 and I doubt that my D800 will be doing well in 40 YEARS!!!).

Peek A Boo OM 1 Ilford 400 1024x1024 Film Dollars & Cents

Peek A Boo Ilford400 (Perth, Australia)

If you are after that “retro” feel there is no need to spend thousands on a digital camera that mimics the feel of film.  You can go straight to a film camera and enjoy the discovery of a whole new medium.  You can then proudly proclaim yourself to be both a “digital” and “film” photographer!


Film Workflow

Dena Sun OM 1 Ilford 400 1024x682 Film Workflow

Dena Sun Ilford400 (Perth, Australia): OM-1, 50mm

So on the last post I wrote about the results of my retro trip through Photography and today I wanted to share my workflow with you.  I am thrilled with film photography.  For one thing I have found that at just over $1.00 per shot film is not really that expensive.  I will talk a little about this on my next post.  For this post I wanted to highlight how I am working with film.

To be fair, I have just started shooting with film and the pictures I am posting represent the first set of results of this workflow.  As with all my workflows it is simple, flexible and ensures that I do not lose any of my images.  One dollar per image might be cheap but it is far from free!

I do not receive any money or special favors from any of the companies that I mention.  The few occasions when I receive a free piece of kit to try out I have made it clear in my review.  My photography hobby, like yours, is paid through my day job.  I spend my hard earned money on things that I find useful.  Ok, now with that out of the way….

I took my film to Fitzgerald Photo here in Perth.  It is the first time I have used them and I was very impressed.  They are very knowledgable and understand the concerns of photographers.  Their showroom is uncluttered and very well thought out.  I explained that I had some film to process but did not want prints but rather scanned images.  The young lady that was helping me understood immediately.

They promised that the film would be processed by Friday (it was Saturday) due to a national holiday and that I would get a text on my cell to let me know when it was done.  I received the text on Wednesday night and picked it up on Friday.

Sleep OM 1 Ilford 400 1024x822 Film Workflow

Sleep Ilford400 (Perth, Australia): OM-1, 50mm

I picked up a CD with my 36 exposures on there, my negatives and a proof sheet.  All this for $30.  Great service, on time delivery at a reasonable price.  My only comment is that I wish they had an option to use a drop box for the digital files to let me get access to them ASAP.  I would still pick up the CD and negatives but would probably do so only when dropping off the next roll.

Once the film was properly processed and scanned I took the pictures to my main camera drive.  I also copied it on my first home back up drive and added it to the photo bank to be added to my offsite back up drive.

I then imported them into Lightroom and used it to soften the noise that the Ilford 400 has.  Now I did not want to remove the noise completely because I love the grain and it is one of the reasons I purchased this film.  But on some of the images, it was a little too strong.  I then adjusted the contrast and ensured that I had a good black / white point on the images.  Finally I removed some dust spots and the picture was ready.

I then took it to Photoshop to prepare the image for printing.  This was just to ensure that I had to right size image to get the print I was after.  No post processing was done using Photoshop for these images as they did not require much.

What this workflow allows is for a back up of all images (both onsite and offsite), the majority of the processing is in Lightroom which is faster than Photoshop and it still gives me complete control over the actual print.

Beach OM 1 Ilford 400 1024x521 Film Workflow

Beach Ilford400 (Perth, Australia): OM-1, 50mm

If I did not own my Epson 3000 printer I would have asked for prints as well as the CD.  I would then process as above and blow up the images that I really liked.

Next post I will jump into the economic side of this workflow.