Choosing a Projection for Panoramic Photos

Panoramas, Wisdom

Some of my most profitable images are landscape panoramic photos, selected for large reproduction in office lobbies, museums or sometimes private homes. With the current generation of extremely sharp lenses and very high resolution sensors, and advances in photo processing software and hardware, it is straightforward to make enormous, high quality, and visually flawless panoramas from individual images. One decision which can profoundly affect the outcome of the panorama is the chosen projection mode.

After trips to Zion, Crater Lake, Death Valley, and Yosemite National Parks, during which one of my goals was to create very large, highly detailed panoramas with the Nikon D800 and D800e cameras, I have been assembling a number of panoramas and deciding which ones to keep and present for sale and licensing. I use a variety of software to create the final panoramas from individual images, including Photoshop, Panorama Factory, PTGui and most recently, AutoPano Pro 3.0. In some cases, the choice of a projection seems to make little difference. But in compositions that involve very wide angles, or include a lot of sky (such as Milky Way panoramic photos), the projection mode can make a huge difference, especially with elements of the composition that are at or near the edges of the final image. To illustrate this, here are 7 different projections of the same panorama, formed from six individual frames shot at Crater Lake using a Canon 5D Mark III and 15mm full frame fisheye lens. I have a few further remarks about my choice(s) of stitching software at the end of the post.

All of these panoramas are made in fully automatic mode in AutoPano Pro, with no adjustments other than simple contrast, saturation and curve in Lightroom before passing the component images to AutoPano Pro. The results are uncropped to emphasize the distortion (or lack thereof) inherent in the different projections.







Mirror Ball

Note there is no ghosting in these images — I am really impressed with AutoPano Pro for this reason and it is quickly becoming my preferred panorama software. Also, AutoPano Pro seems to make better use of the computer’s resources when stitching enormous (250 MB to 1.5 GB) panoramas. Photoshop seems to often bring the computer to its knees and it painfully slow in many cases. Panorama Factory simply “runs out of memory” in many situations, and does not seem to take advantage of the 32GB of memory I have installed on my iMac. PTGUI is great for allowing me to precisely choose the center of the image which a given projection will be based, but I find that often PTGui’s automated selection of stitching points includes errors that lead to ghosting or other artifacts. AutoPano Pro, however, processes panoramas quickly and without bogging down my computer overly much (I am still able to multitask while AutoPano Pro is rendering the final images). Furthermore, AutoPano Pro has excellent automatic determination of stitch points (the pairs of points needed to help the stitching algorithm decide how to align two overlapping images); I rarely have to resort to placing manual stitch points with AutoPano Pro. Lastly, I shoot many of my daylight panoramas handheld, which means there is some ghosting and parallax error in foreground objects. Photoshop does a good job resolving these problems, but so does AutoPano Pro and so much more quickly and with less compute time. There you go, I think you can guess what my favorite stitching software is at the moment.

The World’s Greatest Photo Subjects

Icons, Wisdom

The World’s Greatest Photo Subjects. I’m going big with this blog entry! After 20 years of making photographs, I realized I have had the good fortune of seeing some of Earth’s greatest natural history spectacles with my own eyes. I looked back and made a list of eleven of the subjects I have photographed that qualify as the “World’s Greatest” in some way.

1) The Largest Animal Ever to Inhabit Earth – The Blue Whale. Of all the photographic subjects I have pursued, my collection of blue whale photos is perhaps the group of which I am most proud. These were all made in cold California water, often in visibility so poor that the entire 80′ whale could not be seen at once, and usually miles from shore in sometimes rough seas. I made my first blue whale photo 18 years ago and it has taken a lot of focus and effort in the intervening years to produce the subsequent images. Words cannot describe what the experience of being near a blue whale in its element is like. If I never see another blue whale in my life, I will still consider myself a lucky underwater photographer. More blue whale photos.

Blue whale underwater photo showing entire whale head (rostrum) to tail (fluke).  This picture of a blue whale shows it swimming through the open ocean, a rare underwater view.  Specialized underwater camera gear, including an extremely wide lens, was used to capture the entire enormous whale in a single photograph, Balaenoptera musculus

Blue whale underwater photo showing entire whale head (rostrum) to tail (fluke). This picture of a blue whale shows it swimming through the open ocean, a rare underwater view. Specialized underwater camera gear, including an extremely wide lens, was used to capture the entire enormous whale in a single photograph.
Image ID: 27300
Species: Blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus
Location: California, USA

2) The Largest Toothed Whale (Odontocete) in the World – The Sperm Whale. 16 years ago I was involved with a television production in the Azores, filming sperm whales for Tokyo Broadcasting System. We spent a month at sea near Sao Miguel Island on a 150-year-old sardine trawler, the Silvery Light, following sperm whales with our hydrophones and filming them when they were at the surface. I had a few opportunities to shoot stills too. Nowadays photos of sperm whales are common with tour groups in the Caribbean taking people up close to these astounding, deep-diving animals. Ogasawara in Japan is also well known for sperm whale encounters, and of course the Azores.

Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, Sao Miguel Island

Sperm whale.
Image ID: 02078
Species: Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus
Location: Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal

3) The Largest Cartilaginous Fish in the World – The Whale Shark. Reaching over 40′ (12m) in length and up to 24 tons in size, the whale shark is a true giant. However, it eats planktonic food and small fish, has no teeth, and is generally considered harmless. Most divers consider seeing a whale shark underwater a highlight of their diving career. I’ve seen a few, all but one of them in the Galapagos Islands.

A whale shark swims through the open ocean in the Galapagos Islands.  The whale shark is the largest shark on Earth, but is harmless eating plankton and small fish, Rhincodon typus, Darwin Island

A whale shark swims through the open ocean in the Galapagos Islands. The whale shark is the largest shark on Earth, but is harmless eating plankton and small fish.
Image ID: 01520
Species: Whale shark, Rhincodon typus
Location: Darwin Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

4) The Largest Bony (Teleost) Fish in the World – The Ocean Sunfish. California has to be the best place in the world to see the odd ocean sunfish, Mola mola. Some years the waters off our coast are plugged with sunfish in seemingly uncountable numbers, and other times they are nowhere to be seen. The species Mola mola grows to 11′ (3.3m) in length and over 2 tons in size. They are found not only at the ocean surface but are also known to swim as deep as 2000′ (600m) in search of pelagic zooplankton (jellyfish) which are their normal diet. While offshore looking for whales we have often found ocean sunfish, many times they are swimming near clumps of drifting kelp seeking to be cleaned of parasites by the smaller fish that inhabit the kelp.

Ocean sunfish and freediving photographer, open ocean, Mola mola, San Diego, California

Ocean sunfish and freediving photographer, open ocean.
Image ID: 03491
Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
Location: San Diego, California, USA

5) The Largest Tree in the World – The Giant Sequoia Tree. I remember my first hikes as a kid among giant sequoia trees, being astounded by how massive the trunk of this species can be. They can be quite old, living 3500 years, but are not the oldest of trees. And while they are not quite the tallest trees in the world, they are easily the largest in terms of volume, reaching a height of 311′ (95m) and 56′ (17m) in diameter. That’s huge! They are only found in 68 groves in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California, where soil and moisture are just right.

A giant sequoia tree, soars skyward from the forest floor, lit by the morning sun and surrounded by other sequioas.  The massive trunk characteristic of sequoia trees is apparent, as is the crown of foliage starting high above the base of the tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

A giant sequoia tree, soars skyward from the forest floor, lit by the morning sun and surrounded by other sequioas. The massive trunk characteristic of sequoia trees is apparent, as is the crown of foliage starting high above the base of the tree.
Image ID: 23259
Species: Giant sequoia tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum
Location: Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

6) The Tallest Tree in the World – The Coastal Redwood Tree. A few summers ago, we took a family vacation in Redwood National Park. It was our first time seeing the magnificent Coastal Redwood Trees that inhabit the mist-shrouded groves along the coastal region of northern California. These skyscrapers reach 379′ (115m) in height and live to be 1800 years in age. Unfortunately, over 95% of the original old-growth redwood forest has been cut for lumber, but much of the remaining trees are protected now.

Giant redwood, Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park.  The coastal redwood, or simply 'redwood', is the tallest tree on Earth, reaching a height of 379' and living 3500 years or more.  It is native to coastal California and the southwestern corner of Oregon within the United States, but most concentrated in Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California, found close to the coast where moisture and soil conditions can support its unique size and growth requirements, Sequoia sempervirens

Giant redwood, Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park. The coastal redwood, or simply ‘redwood’, is the tallest tree on Earth, reaching a height of 379′ and living 3500 years or more. It is native to coastal California and the southwestern corner of Oregon within the United States, but most concentrated in Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California, found close to the coast where moisture and soil conditions can support its unique size and growth requirements.
Image ID: 25795
Species: Coast redwood, giant redwood, California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens
Location: Redwood National Park, California, USA

7) The Largest Pinniped in the World – The Elephant Seal. I have encountered elephant seals, the giants of the pinniped world and some of the ocean world’s deepest divers, along the west coast of North America, at remote Mexican islands off the coast of Baja California, and in the Falkland Islands and Antarctica. These remarkable animals reach a length of 16′ (5m) and weigh over 3 tons! The southern species is a little larger than the northern species, but the natural history and behavior of the two species is quite similar. Shown below is a juvenile elephant seal underwater, in the clear waters of Guadalupe Island. One of my proudest moments diving and photographing in the ocean was being pinned on the bottom in about 5′ of water at the San Benito Islands by several inquisitive elephant seals. The moving water and approaching seals conspired, and I ended up below two of the gargantuan, soft, itchy beasts, my back pressed to the sand bottom, holding my breath, wondering if I would be released before I passed out. Soon enough another wave passed through and moved us all in such a way that I was able to slip away unscathed and much relieved. I am sure the elephant seals were not aggressive for had they been they could have easily hurt me. I also suspect they were not interested in mating with me, but I did not stick around long enough to ask.

A northern elephant seal hovers underwater over a rocky bottom  along the coastline of Guadalupe Island, Mirounga angustirostris, Guadalupe Island (Isla Guadalupe)

A northern elephant seal hovers underwater over a rocky bottom along the coastline of Guadalupe Island.
Image ID: 03505
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Guadalupe Island (Isla Guadalupe), Baja California, Mexico

8) The Oldest Organism on Earth – The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree. High in the White Mountains of eastern California is found one of my favorite trees, the bristlecone pine. These trees are truly extreme, living at an altitude of 10,000′ to 11,000′ (3000-3400m) and living more than 4,750 years! I find it amazing to think of the history that has passed by, the changes that have occurred on Earth, the river of humanity that has come and gone, all while these old trees have persisted atop the crest of the White Mountains. Some of the bristlecones I have photographed were alive and already old when Jesus lived and when the Caesars ruled. I recently photographed bristlecones under the Milky Way, and the juxtaposition of these two ancient natural spectacles was moving.

Stars and the Milky Way rise above ancient bristlecone pine trees, in the White Mountains at an elevation of 10,000' above sea level.  These are some of the oldest trees in the world, reaching 4000 years in age, Pinus longaeva, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest

Stars and the Milky Way rise above ancient bristlecone pine trees, in the White Mountains at an elevation of 10,000′ above sea level. These are some of the oldest trees in the world, reaching 4000 years in age.
Image ID: 27772
Species: Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva
Location: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California, USA

9) The Largest Sirenian in the World – The West Indian Manatee. Florida Manatees, those adorable and ugly potato-like animals found in Florida and the Caribbean, reach weights of 1300 lbs and 15′ (4.5m) in length. I spent a week photographing manatees in Florida in the 90’s and had a great time but was dismayed to see a number of these gentle giants exhibiting prop scars from passing motorboats. Manatees are classified as an endangered species and receive protection from both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

A Florida manatee, or West Indian Manatee, swims slowly through the clear waters of Crystal River, Trichechus manatus, Three Sisters Springs

A Florida manatee, or West Indian Manatee, swims slowly through the clear waters of Crystal River.
Image ID: 02696
Species: West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus
Location: Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River, Florida, USA

10) The Largest Wingspan of any Living Bird in the World – The Wandering Albatross. The only time I have seen the Wandering Albatross, one of the most impressive seabirds on Earth, was while making the lonely and long crossing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island. With a wingspan of up to 12′ (3.7m) the Wandering Albatross can fly for several hours without beating its wings, using the uplift from passing ocean swells to keep it aloft. The oft-quoted ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy said it well upon sighting his first Wandering Albatross in 1912: I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12' from wingtip to wingtip.  It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop.  The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years.  They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear, Diomedea exulans

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12′ from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear.
Image ID: 24071
Species: Wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans
Location: Southern Ocean

11) The Fastest Growing Organism on Earth – Giant Kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera. Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, is the largest of all algae, growing up to 160′ (50m) during the lifespan of a single stalk. Macrocystis can grow up to 2′ per day in optimal conditions. Giant kelp is one of the most beautiful underwater habitats in which to dive, and my favorite place to take pictures underwater (when not around animals!).

Kelp frond showing pneumatocysts, Macrocystis pyrifera, San Clemente Island

Kelp frond showing pneumatocysts.
Image ID: 00627
Species: Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: San Clemente Island, California, USA

If I Shoot Raw Do I Have To Pay Any Attention To Exposure? No!


Ask The Digital Photography Expert

Q: If I shoot raw, do I need to worry about getting my exposures correct anymore? I remember when I took photography in high school, the teacher had us bothering with confusing settings like shutter speed, apartachure and film fastness, and all of that was very hard to understand especially because I was really in photography to meet chicks and sniff the fixer tank fumes. Now I have decided that I am going to travel the world and take glamorous photos like a pro, teach glamorous photo workshops, and get a glamorous job at Life magazine where I will meet chicks, so I have decided to buy a camera and get started. I have been told that with today’s super smart digital cameras I don’t even need to be concerned with exposure settings anymore. Is that true? Sincerely yours, Nubert Eye’essoo.

A: Yes, Nube, it is true! You can pretty much take any photo at any exposure setting you wish, and fix it later in raw.* I do it all the time. Let’s consider an illustrative example…

I was editing some images I shot this summer to get them organized for a copyright submission and found a sequence of a blue whale that I had forgotten about. It was underexposed by at least three stops, perhaps four stops. I must have pressed the exposure-hold button while the camera was pointed up at the sky or some other lame-brain move. In the days of film a bluewater four-stop underexposure surely would have gone straight in the trash as fast as possible. Keeping something like this around, dwelling on it and thinking about the “what if”, is like remaining friends with an old flame — the tears, regret, and tequila gnaw at your gut. Better to put such things behind oneself, make a clean break and move forward. However, for some reason this sequence stayed on my hard disk, so today I took a look at one of the frames to see what image was buried in there. Low and behold I was able to pull out decent color and detail, enough for a half-page repro or web use. Yet again I am amazed at what we can do with a raw image — even a vastly underexposed one — with today’s software tools. Note also this is not even shot on a modern digital camera. The body that made this image is a six-year-old Canon 1DsII. I wonder how much better it would have been shot on a 5DII or 1DIV. Shown here are two frames in the sequence, one of which is “saved” and the other of which appears in its straight-from-the-camera form. Raw is amazing and can fix just about any mistake you can make. So go ahead and blast away and don’t worry about details like exposure settings or focus. As you can see, I certainly don’t!

* Ok, there are elements of poetic license of that answer. Actually, it was pretty much a total lie.

A Tale of Two Panoramas and One iPhone

Panoramas, Wisdom

Recently I encountered two panoramic photo situations in which the software that I am accustomed to using for stitching panoramas failed. It gave me the impetus to try Photoshop for panoramas, with mixed results explained below. And the biggest surprise of my recent panorama efforts has been with, well, you’ll have to read to the end to find out unless my clever post title gave it away. Fair warning: if the entire notion of stitching and blending multiple images into a long, high resolution panorama makes your shutter glaze over, click away now!

Part 1 of 3: Failure then Success

This above panoramic photo of San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina, including the Marriott Hotel, Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel, Roy’s Restaurant and the San Diego Convention Center, is a composite of three original frames. I used Panorama Factory to stitch an initial version, and was disappointed to see some severe distortion artifacts on many of the buildings. I have encountered these occasionally in the past, and usually solved the problem by lessening or increasing the number of control points, or changing the perspective (spherical/cylindrical), or resorting to “full automatic stitching”. I think each of these alternatives changes the way in which Panorama Factory is constrained to correct for distortion, tilt and roll. By trying a few different alternatives, sometimes Panorama Factory is freed of enough mathematical constraints that the distortion artifacts go away. However, in this image the artifacts appeared, strongly, in all versions I made with Panorama Factory. For example, the following detail is from the top right corner of the Marriott Hotel, and shows ghosting (which is easily fixed in post by modifying the layer masks that Panorama Factory provides). The ghosting actually serves to illustrate the point that distortion is observed in both layers that overlap at this point. In other words, simply resorting to one layer or the other does not solve the distortion problem (although it would solve the ghosting).

I decided to give the stitching a try in Photoshop PS5’s “image merge”. In the past I did not have much faith in Photoshop’s “image merge”, given that it is nearly a “full auto” process and there is no allowance for the user to input, say, control points to ensure alignment. I’m a control freak, and giving complete control of the stitching to Photoshop did not appeal to me. For example, it does not even permit the user to offer such a basic starting point as defining what order (left to right) the images are to be considered — Photoshop figures this out on its own. So imagine my surprise when Photoshop produced as flawless a panoramic stitch as I have ever seen. On hindsight I should not have been surprised that Adobe, with its vast resources and programming talent, could produce an excellent panoramic stitching engine. Nevertheless, I was floored. I’ve scoured the detail in Photoshop’s version of this panoramic photo and have not found a stitching flaw or noticeable bit of distortion yet. For comparison, the same detail from the Photoshop version of the panoramic photo:

Part 2 of 3: Failure (Boo, Hiss!)

I encountered a second example of panoramic stitching challenges last week when my daughter and I enjoyed the sunset and made photos of Scripps Pier in La Jolla. In this case, both Panorama Factory and Photoshop failed, but in different ways. First, the full panorama looks pretty good at first glance:

There is plenty of wave movement in this composition, and I knew in advance that blending the waves would be near impossible. (I really should have used a 3-stop ND filter and f/22 to blur the water movement as much as possible, lessening the detail and making a pleasing blend more attainable. And next time I’ll do just that!) However, Panorama Factory shows significant distortion on several sections of the pier:

Panorama Factory does produce a layered PSD file complete with blending masks, and I tried to compensate for these distortions in post but was unable to remove them satisfactorily. When the distortions exist they exist in both layers being blended at that point, which makes it impossible to use the layer masks to solve the problem.

On the other hand, Photoshop shows a much better blend of the pier but a more jarring discontinuity in the waves to the left and right of the rightmost set of pier pilings:

Photoshop’s panorama product does NOT provide a layered PSD with masks, so I am unable to make further improvements to this image. That’s too bad. One of the strongest features of Panorama Factory is its ability to provide a layered PSD with blending masks, since this can be fine-tuned afterward in Photoshop to remove most ghosting artifacts and sometimes address distortion artifacts as well (although not in this case).

Part 3: Success, Unexpected!

Lastly, Sarah was fooling around with my iPhone while I used the “real camera”. She produced the above panorama in about 60 seconds using Autostitch for the iPhone. This just blows me away. For crying out loud, this is a 10-year-old using a phone and a $2.99 app to produce panoramas that would have been difficult for some computers to produce just a decade ago or less! It will be interesting to see what the iPhone and apps like Autostitch can do in coming years. Panorama Factory and Photoshop had better watch their heels.

Here are a few more I shot while running. I stop for about 60 seconds to shoot 3-6 photos, then Autostitch takes 10-20 seconds to blend them into a panorama, trim the overage off and upload a reduced-size version to Facebook where my family can see them long before I am back home and near a computer. I don’t have my glasses on, can’t see for the sweat in my eyes, and my hands are shaking. And still they often turn out pretty darn good. The full res version can always be accessed via iPhoto the next time the phone is synced to iTunes. These thumbnails link through to the unretouched full res versions if you are interested in seeing how much ghosting or exposure flaws there are in the final versions. Amazing!

Distance, Perspective and the Out-Of-Focus Background

Pelicans, Wisdom

I went down to La Jolla this morning to photograph brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) with my friend Garry McCarthy. My plan was to test the sharpness of my 500 with a 2x teleconverter** so I had a pretty long setup. Unfortunately, when I arrived I found that two photographers had already proceeded to sit on the lower shelf before sunrise. “Uh-oh” I thought, knowing this would basically screw the photographic opportunities for everyone (except perhaps the two guys pushing the birds, depending on what they were after). One of the two is exceptionally talented and experienced and should know better than to plant himself right where the pelicans try to land. In my estimation (I have been watching and photographing these birds at this location for about 25 years) this would cause most of the pelicans approaching from the ocean to swerve away and choose another area on which to land. Indeed, that is what transpired over the next 45 minutes as the sun lit the bluff, the pelicans appeared on the horizon in twos and threes, approached to within 200 yards or so and then veered west to land at the bluff 150 yds away along Coast Blvd. The top of the pelican bluff is normally chock full of preening pelicans shortly after sunrise, providing nothing spooks them. It is also, in my opinion, where the best portrait and flight photographs are made and is where the pelicans seem to be most comfortable and approachable after they have settled in and begun preening. It was empty this morning. It was dismaying to realize that one of the two was a pro who appeared to have a client with him. If that was indeed the case he was actually teaching his student this behavior by example. Photographers: please don’t push the birds on the bluff here, they are on the cliffs for reasons that have nothing to do with our photography — to rest and preen — and they need some space. But I digress…

In the course of reviewing the morning’s catch, I realized I made a series of images that illustrates well how increasing background distance relative to the subject serves to throw the background increasingly out of focus (OOF), resulting in that pleasingly smooth OOF background that wildlife photographers love. There is nothing cutting edge about these static pelican portraits, but they are tack sharp and show incredible detail in the eye and in the richly-colored throat and plumage feathers that California pelicans exhibit so strikingly each winter. All three of these images were shot in the same light, with similar background conditions (moderately smooth ocean in direct sun) on the same pelican, at the same distance with the same lens (500mm w/ 1.4x teleconverter) and f-stop (f/11), within a few minutes of each other. What changes most profoundly from one image to the next in this series is how the background (ocean water) is rendered behind the bird. From one image to the next, the ratio of the background distance to the subject distance increases by about an order of magnitude. In the first image, which is shot looking somewhat down on the pelican, the background ocean water is about twice the distance of the bird. There is some detail seen in the water; at least it is recognizable as ocean ripples. In the second image, I am lower to the water but have maintained the same distance to the bird. By being lower, I have caused the background to now be more distant, let’s say 5 to 10 times as far as the bird. This leads to an image that differs from the first primarily in a softening of the background while the pelican appears nearly the same as in the first image. In the third image, cropped somewhat and with added compression of a 2x converter, I shot from my knees so that the ocean background is now just below the horizon, as far as I could make it without showing any horizon or sky, effectively at infinity. The subject is a bit closer as well. This combination results in a ratio of background to subject distance that is far greater than that in the second image, perhaps 100 or 1000. At this point, the background has essentially no discernible detail and becomes a nearly smooth wash of blue color.

This notion — that increasing the ratio of background distance to subject distance softens the background — applies in countless situations: nearby bird and distant forest at Bosque del Apache, nearby whale fluke and distant ice in polar regions, nearby bikini-clad model and distant seacliffs in Malibu, nearby bug and distant foliage in insect photography. This is a fundamental idea and there is nothing groundbreaking in my comments, but its helps me to think about such things explicitly from time to time so I can better put them to use the next time I am out shooting.

California brown pelican, showing characteristic winter plumage including red/olive throat, brown hindneck, yellow and white head colors, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican, showing characteristic winter plumage including red/olive throat, brown hindneck, yellow and white head colors.
Image ID: 26471
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California brown pelican, showing characteristic winter plumage including red/olive throat, brown hindneck, yellow and white head colors, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican, showing characteristic winter plumage including red/olive throat, brown hindneck, yellow and white head colors.
Image ID: 26470
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California brown pelican, showing characteristic winter plumage including red/olive throat, brown hindneck, yellow and white head colors, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican, showing characteristic winter plumage including red/olive throat, brown hindneck, yellow and white head colors.
Image ID: 26467
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

**As I hoped: sharpness became tack at effective f/11 and got even better at f/16, meaning I must shut down a minimum of one stop and preferably two stops from wide open for a 2x converter. Similarly, for real sharpness I have found I need to stop down one stop for a 1.4x converter. (In contrast, with my 300 f/2.8 I can shoot wide open with a 1.4x converter and usually achieve a task sharp image.) By “tack” I mean sharp enough that I would be happy to submit the image to any publisher for reproduction at any size.

I’ve compiled my thoughts on photographing California brown pelicans in La Jolla in a PDF article.

If you like these photos, you can also see lots more blog posts from past sessions photographing California brown pelicans in La Jolla.

Photography Expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands

Antarctica, Downloads, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean, Wisdom

I’ve finally gathered blog posts and select images into an informal report of my trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands in January 2010, which is available along with my other articles, reports and downloads. This trip was so much fun, and so rich in wildlife and photography possibilities, that I am already planning two more trips to southern waters to see more. The blog posts from which this article originates are filed under “Southern Ocean“.

A Breath-Holding Exercise for Water Photographers

Photography, Wisdom

I finish my swim workouts with a few minutes of active breathholding exercises which I feel make me a better waterman and a better photographer. Photographers working in or under the water must often deal with chaotic, stressful or just plain physically demanding situations. I have found that being able to better control my heartrate and breathing in such situations really helps me to keep my focus and hopefully come away with a photograph I am proud of. I thought about this today during my swim (just a few minutes ago) and decided to jot this down while I had some clarity of thought, before all that highly oxygenated blood that is buzzing through my brain departs for my belly when I eat lunch.

The Prelude: After a full swim workout, one’s heart is tick-tick-ticking away with optimal performance, and one’s body is piqued and in a elevated state. That is a perfect time to practice relaxation and breath control. My swim today is an example. I swam, pulled and kicked about 2800 yards, which took me about 45-50 minutes. My hunch is that my heart rate neared its peak after about 8 minutes or so, and that it stayed there through the rest of the swim. After about 12 minutes I really felt “in the zone”, and I stayed there the rest of the way. By the time I finished my heart and breathing were really going. Being able to have some control over them at that point is similar to being able to control them in a stressful situation in the ocean.

The Exercise: Once I’m done with my workout, I hang motionless on the side of the pool and relax for about 2 minutes, staring at the tiles on the edge of the pool. I try to mentally eliminate any distrations and concentrate on lowering my breathing and heart rates. It sounds funny but I honestly feel that I can lower my heartrate just by thinking about it. After a couple minutes of relaxing this way, I will then swim a series of five to eight breathhold cycles (25 yards out, turn, 25 yards back). I will swim out, turn, and swim as far back as is comfortable underwater before rising for a first breath. I then swim the remainder of the cycle slowly on the surface, as relaxed as possible and breathing deeply and easily. I think about my heartrate the whole time, focusing on keeping it slow and easy, and on keeping my entire body relaxed and streamlined. I should stress that I try to remain comfortable doing this. I do not want to push the breath holding too far while swimming underwater, for fear of blacking out and drowning.

Bubble ring

Bubble ring.
Image ID: 06998

I first came up with this technique about 14 years ago, in preparation for a photography assignment where I had keep up with world class swimmers and wild dolphins in open water. These expeditions were repeated about 6 times, plus Skip and I had a series of whale filming and photography shoots during those years as well, so once I started these breathholding exercises I just never stopped. I have kept them essentially unchanged since 1998. I carry out this exercise at the end of all of my swim workouts. While some days I feel and swim better than others, just about every time I practice it I find that on each successive breathhold cycle I can swim further underwater than the cycle before. The entire exercise takes about 8 minutes to complete. My heart rate feels lower each cycle, and my breathing definitely relaxes and slows during the course of the exercise. By the time I get out of the pool, I am very relaxed.

The Payoff: This exercise has a direct application when I am in the water shooting photos. Whether I am in large surf, strong currents, surrounded by a lot of animals, getting bumped or inspected by some big or gnarly animals, or am just in some generally stressful situation, as a result of my pool exercises I am better able to regain my focus, guide my body into a more relaxed state, lower my breathing and heartrate, function more efficiently and with fewer errors, and increase my margin of safely. All of these things also increase the odds that I will emerge from the situation with a good photograph.

Plus it helps you blow good bubble rings underwater.

How I Lost My Apple-ginity


You know the feeling. That special iFeeling. You walk into the Apple Store and immediately have the joy. Oooh. Aaah. “How cool would it be to have one of those? Just think how my photography experience would improve with THAT! I know I could be twice as productive with that phone!” My kids love the Apple Store too. “iDad, can I have one of these? I really need it for school!” My wallet climbs out of my pocket and prostrates itself across the “genius bar” before I notice and yank it back. I have an Apple Store a few minutes from my house. It’s my happy place. My car knows the way blindfolded. However, in spite of the fact that I have worked with personal computers since 1984 (yup, the PC-XT), I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool PC/Windows guy for reasons related to the tech I practice, and have resisted owning an Apple (other than our many iPods, 7 or 8 I think, I’ve lost count).

27 iMac Quad Core Gorgeous Screen

27" iMac Quad Core Gorgeous Screen

Well, I am officially no longer an iVirgin. I am swooning and smitten, shining with that lovely glow that only one’s first iMac can produce. I just picked up a beautiful quad-core iMac 27″. I decided that, given the 30,000 images and hours of video I shot on my recent trip, and the limited time I have to get the images edited and prepped, I should at least have a fun new toy to make the process fun and go quickly. I’m also starting to switch some of my workflow to Lightroom. (I am using Lightroom 3 beta at the moment. It seems more stable on the iMac than on Windows.). Given that Lightroom runs beautifully on a Mac, and the fact that the 27″ iMac monitor is so so sweet, I broke down and bought one. And guess what? Now I’m a hero with my iKids too! My girls have totally taken over the thing until the wee hours of the night when I kick them off and get down to work of editing my images, reliving the places I saw and the animals I met in glorious 27″ iReality.

Oooooooooh, sweeeeeeeet.

Oooooooooh, sweeeeeeeet.

The monitor problem that everyone is reporting? Well, from the comments on the internet it is a real issue. My monitor may have the very faintest yellow tinge to it, it is hard to say. I tried this test: and found no dead or stuck pixels (good thing), and depending on the angle of view there may be a bit of a yellow tinge to the lower portion of the monitor. So I guess I’ll have it checked soon.

Apple says they have fixed the problem. So at least they recognize there is a problem and those who are affected may get some satisfaction.

I’m moving forward with it. I was able to calibrate the monitor and get down to work with it, and am happy with the results. The screen is so large, with so many pixels, that working in Lightroom is a breeze even with all the panes opened up.

So, as long as this gushing love story remains on my blog, you can assume I am happy with my iMac. But, like the fickle females that share my house, I may change my mind! And if I do, you’ll see a rant here and I’ll go back to my old CaptureOne software running on a Windows machine.

SEO For Photographers, Search Engine Optimization


Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is important for photographers. With the growing number of photographer websites on the internet, it is increasingly difficult for a photographer’s website to be noticed by photo buyers who rely on search results. Good positioning in search engine results translates into revenue. Here in a nutshell are some of the SEO ideas that I have found effective in the 12 years that I have maintained a stock photography website.

Inbound Links and Link Juice. No secret here: to become highly-ranked your website needs inbound links from external websites that themselves are ranked well. It is widely accepted that acquiring inbound links is the singlemost important factor in achieving high search presence (i.e., being found on the first page of search results). The obvious implication is that your website should offer content valuable enough that others will link to it. Suppose Z.COM links to your website A.COM. The more highly Z.COM itself is rated (such as measured by its Google Rank or other metrics), the more “link juice” will flow from Z.COM to A.COM, increasing A.COM’s likelihood of appearing in search results. As your website accumulates inbound links from external sites that have a equal or higher Google Rank than yours, increasing amounts “link juice” flow to your website with the result that your website’s presence in search results increases. The more “juice” you have, the better you will usually do in search results. Link juice is the steriod of the SEO game, and trust me you want a fix. Obtaining link juice is a numbers game, both in terms of the quantity of inbound links, the number of unique websites from which those links originate, and the ranking or “juice” that those sites have themselves. Yahoo, CNN, DMOZ, National Geographic, wire services, Apple and Microsoft are examples of sites which offer a lot of juice in their links. (Wikipedia is a notable exception which I explain later.) Note that while quality content that attracts links to your site is the goal moving forward, the number of inbound links you have today depends a lot on your website’s tenure. The longer your website has been in existence and accessible to the world, the greater the number of honest and juicy inbound links you are likely to have.

The above-mentioned issue of inbound links is so overwhelming in its importance to search engine ranking and SEO that the remaining items can be considered second order. I will mention them anyway. But keep in mind that obtaining good, honest, inbound links with juice must be your priority if you wish to have a highly ranked website that succeeds in being found in search results.

Inbound Link Text. The specific text of an inbound link is important. For instance, suppose you have a web page Suppose two links point to it but with different text: “Click here” and “Information about the Bed Bug”. Which do you think is more likely to cause search engines to rank your bed bug page highly when someone searches for “bed bug info”? That’s right, the second link with meaningful text is the better one. So, when you build links within your own website, make sure that the specific text that makes up the link is composed of relevant keywords for which you wish the target page to be associated. If you care about SEO then your days of making “click here” links are over.

Google Is The Bomb. Face it, Google search is where you want to do well right now. Yahoo, Bing and the others are small time, relative to Google. If you can achieve high rankings in non-Google search engines, it will result in some traffic. But the real money and the big traffic is through Google. Learn how Google works and apply it to your own website.

The URL. The specific URL of your web page is mighty important. Try to construct the URL so that the keywords or topics that it should be associated with are actually part of the URL itself. For example, is much more helpful to having your bed bug page rank highly for the keywords “information about bed bugs” than is the URL or

Keywords. OK, by now we all know, or have at least heard, that search engines no longer consider keywords in their algorithms. In the old days crafty HTML coders would define way too many keywords in the META NAME=”KEYWORDS”… field, in the hopes of appearing in as many search results as possible. The search engines caught onto this long ago, and at this point it is believed that none of the search engines use keywords in ranking search results. They probably still have some value and I continue to use them, but I don’t hold my breath that they are helping the search engine presence of my site.

Description. The META NAME=”DESCRIPTION”… field is very important. Keep it reasonably short but at the same time make sure to use keyword-rich and reasonably natural language. It is thought that words that appear earliest in the description are most influential as far as indexing and ranking. Consider omitting words that, while perhaps important in a description that would be read in a printed document, are not crucial to your search goals – doing this increases the keyword density and importance of the remaining keywords in the description field.

Headers. In a similar way to the description metadata, header tags H1, H2 and so on also factor into how search engines rank and index a web page. Consider wording headers so they are particularly relevant, dense in meaningful keywords and positioned highly in the HTML source of the page. Note: blog post titles are often defined in H1 or H2 tags, so chose your blog post titles carefully.

Keyword Rich Content. Again, no surprises here. If you wish a page on your website to be considered highly for a given topic or set of keywords, the content (text) of the page should be rich in meaningful keywords for that topic. In other words, keyword density is important. However, going overboard and artificially repeating keywords in text probably works against you. My personal feeling is that Google is able to recognize highly unnatural language constructs, including repeated keywords, and penalizes for it.

Topmost Content Rules. The first 100 words of your page’s content are considered more important than the next 100 words, and so on. In the same way that many web visitors will only read the first few sentences of your blog post, search engines probably only consider a portion of the content at the top, perhaps only a small portion. So, make the first few sentences of your content count!

Ordering of DIVs. Often the appearance of a web page is somewhat independent of the ordering of DIV fields in the HTML. (If you don’t know what DIVs are, don’t worry. If you use modern blogging or template-driven website software, chances are good you have DIVs in your code.) Provided DIVs can be reordered in your HTML code, you should place those DIV fields that matter most earlier in your HTML. For instance, suppose your blog has a DIV with a list of courtesy links to other websites (e.g., a blogroll) as well as a DIV with actual text of your blog post for that day. You should be sure that the DIV composed of links appears last. If you don’t, there is a good chance search engines will consider the links more important than your actual content! Most good blogging software takes care of this for you. But, if you use a custom template for your blog or website, you should check to ensure that DIV fields are ordered so that the ones that are most important for SEO appear first in the HTML.

ALT Text. This one is a biggie for photographers. Important images on your website should have ALT text associated with them. No ifs, ands or buts. Get that ALT text in your IMG tag or you are limiting the potential for the world to find that image in search results. The reason for this is simple. Search engine spiders know an image is on a web page by virtue of the IMG tag. But the spider and its associated indexing algorithms have no direct way of understanding what the image is about. Search engines must infer what the subject of the image is by examining text the precedes and follows the IMG tag. There is, however, one way that you can directly associate keywords with an image: the ALT field in the IMG tag. The ALT field is used to provide information in browsers which are incapable of displaying images, or in which image display is turned off. Granted, there are not many of those browsers any more. But the field holds immense importance for ensuring that your images are indexed and appear in searches such as Google Images. For instance, suppose your bed bug web page displays your superb photo of the rare species Nocturnicus itchius. At a bare minimum, the IMG tag should contain meaningful ALT text such as ALT=”Bed bug photo, Nocturnicus itchius”. Without this tag, search engine spiders will have to guess what the image contains. If the content (the text your visitors are reading) is well written, search engine indexing algorithms may make a correct guess that the image has something to do with a bed bug. But don’t make the search engines guess: spell it out for them by defining ALT text for the image that makes it crystal clear what the image is.

Reasonable Number of Links Per Page. Too many links on one page is ineffective, at least as far as getting search engines to notice them all. It is believed that search engine indexing algorithms discount later links on a page that contains many links, eventually ignoring links beyond the Nth link altogether. What is N? In other words, how many links on a page before there are too many? That’s something only Google can tell us, and they of course won’t. But the general idea is that you should not stuff too many links on a page if you want them to be noticed by search engines. More effective is to have a small number of well-crafted links, the ones you really care about, and save the others for another page somewhere else.

Presence in Web Directories. DMOZ and Yahoo are two of the oldest and most substantial internet directories. Before search became the way we found information on the web (remember AltaVista, the first of the good search engines?), there were directories. Yahoo was the first one I recall, and DMOZ was sort of an oddball directory that eventually became huge and is well organized. Some measures of relevance involved in search engine rankings likely factor in whether a page or website is present in the directories such as DMOZ and Yahoo. Not to mention, the many free “directories” in which you can register and enter your information. Most of these directories provide a link back to your website.

NOFOLLOW Links Do Not Help You. “Nofollow” links are links that contain the NOFOLLOW attribute. Search engines will notice these links but the link will not add to the ranking of the target web site. A notable example of this is Wikipedia. At one time, links from Wikipedia were very important in search engine rankings. Wikipedia is one of the most prominent and highly ranked sites on the web. A simple link from Wikipedia to, say, your bed bug page would go a long way toward increasing the ranking of that bed bug page. However, because of the rash of spam links inserted by crafty webmasters into Wikipedia pages specifically to improve the ranking of their non-Wikipedia web sites, the folks at Wikipedia decided to convert all outbound links to NOFOLLOW. I noticed the effects of this on my own website when my Google rank dropped from a 6 to 5 shortly after this policy change at Wikipedia was implemented — the links in the various Wikipedia sites that pointed to my website suddenly became invisible to the ranking algorithms, lowering the rankings of sites such as mine that were formally benefitting from Wikipedia links. Now, I’d love to tell Wikipedia that all those links pointing to my website are honest and should be left in place without the NOFOLLOW attribute, that I did not put them there myself for my own selfish purposes, blah blah blah, but Wikipedia made their policy change and and as far as they are concerned websites like mine can go pound sand. What would be neat is if the entire internet reciprocated by converting their links to Wikipedia into NOFOLLOW links. By the way, links in Flickr image descriptions and comments are NOFOLLOW as well.

Blog Comment Links Are NOFOLLOW. Many photographers maintain blogs that foster commentary and discussion. These are great, I love them. However, it should be understood that blog software will often convert any links appearing in comments into NOFOLLOW links. This is done in an effort to curb blog comment spam. If your blog allows full-juice comment links (i.e., links without the NOFOLLOW attribute), you can expect to be targeted by blog comment spammers who will try to pepper your blog with comments that simply link back to their own website. So, if you are making an effort to add comments in blogs that link back to your website, you should understand that often those links will not carry any juice since they are NOFOLLOW links. The blog owner usually has control over whether comment links are FOLLOW or NOFOLLOW, and it is my impression that most prefer NOFOLLOW. Note that links in the body of the post are FOLLOW links, and lend juice to the site to which they point. It is usually just the comment links that are castrated by NOFOLLOW.

Tenure of Domain Name Registration. The longer your domain name has been registered, and the longer until it must be renewed, the more substantial your website appears to search engines. Consider a web site that has been in existence for only a few years, and whose domain name registration expires in 3 months. Do you think Google is going to consider that site to be worthy of a high ranking? Not! You can’t do anything about how long your website has been in existence — time will take care of that. But you can make sure that your domain name is registered for 3, 5, even 7 years into the future. Search engine algorithms take both past and future tenure of domain name registration into account.

Web Hosting. If your web hosting service is spotty with frequent downtimes or slow response, it may affect your rankings negatively, especially if there are times that search engine spiders try to crawl your site but cannot reach it. Make sure you are with a solid hosting company. Enough said.

Social Media and Networking. I am not sure where the “social media” forms (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, photography community websites and forums) will take us as far as SEO and search presence is concerned. Social media seem effective for developing contacts and followers who in turn may link to your website. So in that sense working to achieve social media prominence may indirectly improve the search presence of one’s site by virtue of additional inbound links. However, if generating visibility in search results is the goal, I think social media may be helpful only in a second- or third-order way. Indeed, it may be misleading by giving one the sense that one’s website is being seen and quality traffic is being generated. In my opinion, for the photographer wishing to sell images, the best traffic does not come from other photographers encountered in social media networks but from actual photo buyers. I have yet to generate a single photo sale that I can directly credit to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or any similar networks. (Mind you, I am not prominent in these networks which may be the reason.) However, I have managed to touch base with a wide variety of talented, inspiring and interesting photographers, so in that sense social media networking has been productive and enjoyable so far. One is smart to stay abreast of the very fluid world of social media and networking; who knows what the playing field will be like in 2-3 years.

Geocoding and Geotagging. Read my past comments about geocoding and geotaggings your photos. Very few photographers currently geotag their photos so I am ahead of the curve in this regard. But not for long: technology is quickly making geotagging sufficiently simple that soon many photographers will be doing it. There are geo-oriented search situations in which geotagged images will appear and non-geotagged images will never be seen.

Link Farms. Don’t do it. In the old days smart-ass webmasters would set up a multitude of worthless websites, all linking to each other or even to a single target website, you know the one: The idea was to fool Google into thinking was worthy of a high ranking due to the sheer number of external links (from the other domains in the link farm) that pointed to Google caught on to this simpleton scheme long ago. It is thought that Google penalizes this technique heavily. Especially obvious are link farms in which all the domains are owned by a few owners or are hosted in close proximity to one another, something Google can determine easily by cross referencing domain name registration information, and by comparing IP addresses and traceroute paths.

Cloaking. Don’t do it. Another smart-ass trick some webmasters use is to present one set of content to human visitors but another to search engines. (This is done with server-side scripting and examining the user-agent to determine if the visitor is a human or a search engine crawler.) Search engine algorithms will detect this (by occasionally sending a crawler that looks to your website like a human and comparing the two versions of content that it see) and penalize you for it.

Flash Websites. You guessed it: don’t do it. That is, if you want a given web page to be noticed and well-indexed by Google, don’t make it a Flash page. We’ve all seen them, the beautiful web pages with moving images, slide shows, awesome user controls, etc etc. However, when was the last time you saw one of these pages showing up in Google search results? The only way a web page be effectively indexed and appear in meaningful search results is through the use of text content and tags (all those mentioned above). Flash obscures text. Flash is a visual tool and does not put emphasis on text. Flash web designers will tell you they can make hidden HTML and text code “behind” the Flash presentation. While text “behind” the Flash-presentation is possible, I still have yet to see one of those all-Flash web pages show up highly in a set of Google search results. By the way, a Flash programmer may structure a page to deliver text content to Google and other search engine crawlers but Flash content to human visitors. This is nothing more than cloaking (mentioned above) and will be detected and likely penalized by search engine algorithms. Challenge your Flash designer to point you to an example where a Flash-based website shows up highly in a Google search that matters; I do not think he will be able to. There are some exceptions to this caveat, in which Flash occupies only a portion of the page and is surrounded by textual content and tags that search engine spiders can latch onto and index. But in general, if you really want to have a Flash-based website, it is best to maintain two sites: a Flash-based website for your ego, and a text-based website for Google. You’ll see which one gets the traffic.

Summary: Offer Killer Content and Hope for Juicy Links. The most effective strategy for a photographer to achieve strong presence in search is to offer fantastic photos that others want to link to. Put great images on your site, surrounded by meaningful and interesting text, make sure to use keywords in the right places and in moderate amounts, and be generous in linking to others so that they in turn may decide to link to you. And cross your fingers that Google takes notice.

Resources: I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent tutorial that Photoshelter offers about SEO techniques for photographers. None of the information is new, but it is assembled in a concise and informative presentation. Also, some months ago I posted remarks about, a great resource for finding weaknesses in your website’s overall internet presence.

In my experience, good positioning in search engine results translates into inquiries and revenue. I have reasonably good position in search results. With the exception of my blog, the code on my website is 100% homegrown and hand-written. My blog is a heavily modified version of WordPress; I have made many changes to improve it for SEO purposes and to fit my own preferences. Much of the luck I have had comes from tenure. My website has been on the web since 1997, and my blog since 2005. My website may not be the prettiest but it has proven to be reasonably effective at being crawled, indexed and ranked highly for many of the subjects that I have photographed. By virtue of the way I have designed and maintained my website with SEO in mind, I have some 5000+ unique visitors each day, up to 10,000 a day if one of the subjects I have happens to be in the news and people are searching for photos of it. Some of those visitors are photo buyers. Some of those photo buyers like my image(s) enough to contact me and inquire. And some of those inquiries result in sales. Basically, my marketing plan is to continue adding images to my website, and sit and wait for the phone to ring. Admittedly, I could be more proactive and market my photos in traditional ways: submitting article proposals, contacting editors with story ideas or to inquire about what their editorial calendar holds for the coming year, networking with industry types, joining photography societies or developing a “brand”. However, life for me these days precludes any substantial marketing, so I instead pick the “low-hanging fruit”. In general a client will contact me about an image that he has found on my website, usually via search engine results. Note that this is a “self-selected client”: it is already established that he is interested in my image (or he would not have contacted me). So the only unknown is if we will agree on the fee. Low-hanging fruit indeed, due entirely to an appearance in search results. Note that I have never “exchanged links” with anyone who has approached me with a link exchange proposal, nor have I ever paid for any advertising or paid-link services.

I am pretty sure my search engine presence is organic, honest and based on simple SEO tactics. For example, take the latin name (scientific name) of virtually any subject of mine, add the word “photo” or “photos” to it, and search for it in Google. Chances are good my site will appear on the first page of results, often in the top 3. A few examples: Balaenoptera musculus photo, Megaptera novaeangliae photo, Cardinalis cardinalis photos. Similarly for common names combined with the word photo/photos: sea lion photos, jumping cougar photos, tiger shark photos, photo of Mesa Arch, Vernal Falls photos, and here’s an odd one: list of fish species. Results shift around a bit over time, but today most of those examples show one of my pages appearing first in the results and (today) none is lower than #3. By the way, you will notice Ron Niebrugge‘s and Q.T. Luong‘s websites appearing very highly in those results too. As well, in his recent post Top 10 SEO Tips for Photographers, Jon Cornforth offers some examples of how his SEO work has put him at the top of search results for some of his Alaska photo subjects. This is no surprise, all three of these professional photographers have exceptional images and well-designed web sites. In fact, Q.T. Luong’s site is one of the few photographer sites that receives a Google Rank of 6. (I used to have a 6 but when Wikipedia changed their links to NOFOLLOW I dropped from 6 to 5. Damn you, Internet!)

Keywords: SEO, search engine optimization, photography SEO, website design for photographers.

Expose to the Right

How To, Wisdom

Are you exposing to the right and using the best in-camera settings for contrast and saturation? If you shoot RAW and expose to the right and think contract and saturation settings don’t affect you, think again. If you judge your exposure settings on whether you are clipping the highlights on your histogram, you may be underexposing unnecessarily. Here’s why.

Note that this post is primarily intended for photographers who shoot RAW. (If you shoot JPEG you may benefit from what follows simply by having a better understanding of what is going on inside your camera, but you probably do not want to use this technique.)

Exposing to the right. Many photographers trying to maximize the amount of data collected in their captures expose to the right, pushing the histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping the highlights. The idea is that by doing this the signal-to-noise ratio in the capture data is maximized. In practice, when determining what the correct exposure is for a given situation, one takes a shot, considers the resulting histogram and then increases exposure until the histogram nears or just touches the right extreme, indicating that pixels are about to be clipped. By shooting to the right one is deliberately increasing the signal (RGB values) as much as possible without clipping them. Since noise is somewhat constant, the resulting signal-to-noise ratio is maximized by exposing to the right in this way. Granted, there are some esoteric reasons for not exposing to the right, but by and large it is an accepted and effective technique for today’s digital cameras.

Clipping highlights. Key to shooting to the right is one’s ability to discern when highlights are being clipped. This is where the in-camera settings for contrast and saturation play a part. Current digital cameras base the histogram on an in-camera JPEG, even when shooting RAW. Typically, the in-camera JPEG has a greater spread in its histogram than is contained in the RAW data, due to the fact that the in-camera JPEG has contrast and saturation enhancement applied to it. Think about it: when you look at your RAW files they have low contrast and saturation, and really don’t come alive until after you have bumped these up a bit. Well, a similar difference occurs between the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — and the underlying RAW data. The default in-camera JPEG has, by design, increased contrast and saturation compared to the RAW file, which translates into (among other things) a histogram that is “more spread out”, with tails reaching further to the left and right.

Now consider this: if the in-camera JPEG has a histogram that is more widely spread than the RAW data, it will show clipped highlights “earlier”. In other words, you won’t push the exposure as far to the right as you might, because the in-camera JPEG — upon which the histogram is based — is indicating highlights are clipped.

The solution is to turn down the contrast and saturation settings for the JPEGs that are created in-camera. On my Canon cameras I turn them each down two notches below the middle setting. Doing this produces an in-camera JPEG that more closely approximates the distribution of the actual RAW data, resulting in a histogram that is more accurate for my purposes. Since I want to maximize the information in the RAW file, I want a histogram that depicts the RAW data not an in-camera JPEG.

The bottom line is that by using lower settings for contrast and saturation I obtain a histogram that is more representative of the data in my RAW file, I can push that exposure further to the right and be confident that I am not clipping the highlights in my RAW data. If I were to use the default settings for contrast and saturation, the histogram would indicate clipping before it was actually occurring, leading me to unnecessarily underexpose the image.

Don’t guess, don’t approximate: take control of your exposures. As we all know, underexposure with digital cameras leads to noise. If you underexpose your RAW file, and you plan on compensating for it later in the RAW conversion, you’ll get some noise in the shadows. Perhaps not much, but as the ISO increases and the amount of underexposure error increases, the noise just gets worse. Why tolerate this at all? By understanding that the histogram is based on the in-camera JPEG, and taking control of the contrast and saturation settings that are used to create the in-camera JPEG, you can obtain a histogram that is more representative of the RAW data and eliminate a potential source of systematic exposure error.

Give it a try.

Thanks to Master Photographer Charles Glatzer for originally pointing out this important exposure issue in the discussion forums.

Keywords: exposing to the right, exposure, highlights, clipping, signal to noise, digital, photography.