Monday, May 31, 2010

What about f-stop?

A few years ago when I was still a newbie in photography, I was quite unsettled by the term "stopping down the lens", or anything to do with f-stop. To find out what photography authors write about this topic, I went to the bookstore today to look at some books. I found that some do not talk about f-stop, while others go into technical details which are not very helpful unless you have a scientific mind. In my camera club, the photography class does not explain about f-stop, yet we use this term all the time.

Here's how I would explain f-stop. Exposure is controlled by 3 things: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. From the largest to the smallest aperture, the aperture number goes like this: 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8,4,5.6,8,11,16,22 . Each step up halves the amount of light entering through. Next, shutter speed. Shutter speed goes like this .... 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500.... . Again, each step up halves the amount of light entering through. Finally, the ISO sensitivity goes like this: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600.... Each step up doubles the sensitivity of the receptors on the sensor. The exposure remains unchanged if you go one step up in aperture, and then one step down in shutter speed, while keeping ISO constant.

To stop down the lens is to reduce the exposure by one f-stop. This can be done by going up one step in aperture, or one step up in shutter speed. Now, in some cameras you may find some in-between numbers other than what I have listed up there. These represent partial stops. Another way to add or minus f-stop is to use the exposure compensation (i.e. EV) setting on the camera, which gives you increments of 1/3 stops or 1/2 stops.

Application: In photography it is more useful to think in terms of stopping up or stopping down the lens, rather than the absolute aperture or shutter speed settings. This is because ambient light is always changing and the camera automatically advises the user of the computed exposure. The photographer can either use eyeballing technique to fine-tune the exposure he wants, or he can check the camera's calculated exposure and then stop up or stop down as he requires (the camera's computed exposure is not always ideal!). Understanding what the f-stop does is key to understanding exposure, be it in natural light, studio light, or flash photography. Now you can go and amaze your photographer friends by throwing around the f word.... or rather, the f-stop word. Say something like "I think you need to go down one stop for this one," when all you really meant was "make the picture darker".

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Honest ads

Every political party thinks nothing of spending millions of dollars on advertisements. They call it educating the public and they feel it is proper use of taxpayers' money. What I'd really like to see is that the education effort goes beyond telling the public what a wonderful job they have been doing. I would like to see some honest ads.

We have seen advertisements that are used to teach people about the cancer-causing effects of cigarette smoking. To discourage drink driving, there are displays of mangled cars and pictures of accident victims. I call these honest ads because they are honest use of the taxpayers' money.

Honest ads should be extended to other vices too. It would be good to see an ad on every poker machine advising the player of his odds of winning. Television commercials should show people the ugly consequences of a family bankrupted by gambling. I would love to see advertisements telling people about computer games addiction. How about social etiquette? Perhaps people need to be shamed into not taking supermarket trolleys to their homes. What about graffiti? The list goes on and on. I think an honest premier or prime minister should stop misusing public funds on so-called educational advertisements, which are usually nothing more than political campaigns to win votes. Instead, they should run more honest ads for the public good. Honestly.

Friday, May 28, 2010

What tyres to buy?

When my Camry had done 100,000km, I had already used up two sets of tyres. One set came with the new car (Dunlop?) and the second set was Bridgestone. Each set lasted me about 50,000km. At that point I decided to try the Hankook tyres, which are significantly cheaper. I have driven for about 42,000km now on the Hankook tyres, made a few trips to Adelaide, and have found no difference in driving experience. The tyres look like they could easily last me a further 10,000km. Verdict: I will definitely continue to use Hankook tyres, as they are much cheaper than the more established Dunlop or Bridgestone tyres. Hankook tyres last as long and they do not give me any difference in performance. I had only one puncture so far and that was caused by a nail. Thumbs up for Hankook.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Entering a club photo competition

Quite often one comes across someone in the camera club who has become disillusioned with the monthly photo competition. Having participated for over a year now, I can understand the feeling of disappointment when the judge sees faults in your masterpiece and don't hand you the recognition you think is well deserved. Hence, there are people who drop out of taking part in the club's photo competition.

A photo competition conducted by the camera club is meant to be a process of grooming you to become a better photographer. It does not matter if you win or not. The whole idea is that you have a chance of pitting your work against other members'. When a judge picks on a fault, it is not meant to criticize you. All photos are presented anonymously to the judge. It is the judge's duty to make comments, good or bad. Believe me, you won't be in a hurry to forget when a judge finds a weakness in you photo. It is a very effective learning process.

Personally, I think the competition also helps a person in character building. Where else do you find an opportunity to train a person to accept constructive criticism, month after month? It is not surprising that photographers are generally very agreeable people, if I may say so myself!

Monday, May 24, 2010

VAPS Muster 2010 in Apollo Bay

VAPS: Victorian Association of Photographic Societies. On this weekend away, I stayed in a holiday house with some other members of our club. I got to improve my photographic skill just by going out and shoot pictures with the others. This is what I've learned:

1. Using colour matrix adjustment in the auto white balance. I have used this before but not really applied it the way I saw my fellow member did. It turned out to be very useful when shooting in very difficult light. For example, in the sunrise picture, boosting up the yellow helped to enrich the colour of the stones on the beach. Also, if you have ever tried to shoot in a rain forest, you'll know that the white balance is very difficult to set correctly. This method enabled me to set the rain forest white balance to a natural level. Using Auto WB or one of the WB presets will not produce a desirable result.

2. Setting the foreground of interest in the seascape scene. Again, this is something I have read about but never really applied. Watching my fellow club member produce a beautiful shot this way inspired me to apply the same.

3. Slowing down the shutter speed to shoot waterfall is a well known technique, but I have never tried it out before. This outing with fellow photographers enabled me to gain hands on experience to finally shoot my first "silky" waterfall. For this waterfall shot, I had to slow down the shutter speed to 1/4 sec, aperture set at F10. This is on top of reducing exposure by 1 stop, putting on a polarizer filter, plus the advantage of a heavy overcast sky.

In the following pictures, setting the camera in Auto or P modes would not have created the shots successfully. These shots have been good "learning shots" for me.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What about macro?

I thought I knew enough of what there is to know about macro photography. After all, you just get a macro lens and off you go, right? Well, that's the same mistake I made with a flash gun. Last night I went to the camera club to get some practice with still life photography. We were encouraged to bring our macro lenses. Soon, I drifted from still life, to close-up, to macro. It was all very muddled. I realized I "knew not what I knew not". I came back and did some googling research to find out more. Here is a website that gives a very good overview of what macro photography is all about: .

Here's what I have learned:
1. The difference between close -up and macro is a matter of degree. I like to think of macro as pictures of small objects or things that normally we would not see except when magnified for viewing. Of course, that's not the technical definition, but who cares? Close-up photography is often mistaken for true macro, so my definition helps to differentiate between these two.
2. There are many approaches to shooting macro (read the webpage given above). I realize there's lots more to macro than I am ready for, so I don't see myself getting into it in the near future.

(By the way, I will be away in Apollo Bay for the next few days, so I won't be blogging in the meantime)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Will Google stand up to the iPad?

Google has been strangely silent about the iPad, but I predict that it will have to respond to it somehow. After all, the Google's Android is pretty much an obvious attempt to unseat the iPod and the iTunes apps store. At the same time, Bill Gates of Microsoft must be wondering why he failed miserably while Apple is buoyant with success. The mighty Microsoft has spent 15 years and made several attempts to produce a tablet PC, none of which has come close to seeing daylight. The iPad, on the other hand, couldn't even find its way to the market shelf without being snapped up by pre-orders.

Somebody has to come up with a formidable challenge to the iPad. It has to happen. Will it be Sony, Acer, HTC, Nokia, Motorola, Amazon, or Microsoft (with its umpteenth attempt at it)? All of these companies have a portion of their business at stake to defend against the iPad onslaught. It is even more bewildering to think that the technology is not exclusive to Apple: touchscreen LCD screen and so on... not such a big deal, really. So why hasn't anyone succeeded?

Google is the only company that managed to tame Microsoft, so I think again it is the only company that can tame Apple. I am waiting to see Google's respond to the iPad. When that happens, I am sure Apple will certainly sit up. I will.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The art of price gouging; the Optus way

A friend of mine responded to an advertisement for a $39 plane ticket between Adelaide and Melbourne. Booking two return tickets, she was surprised to find that the total amount came up to $200, instead of the expected $160 or so. Welcome to Australia, where price gouging is a common practice.

In July last year, Telstra implemented a $2.20 charge on customers who pay the phone bill over the counter. After much public hue and cry, Telstra unilaterally withdrew this charge in November. Telstra's competitor Optus is more surreptitious; recently it quietly imposed a $0.55 fee for the same reason but through the "back door" way. If you pay an Optus bill over the counter, a $0.55 charge will appear somewhere in your next bill. Since most people do not scrutinize the details in their bill, they will just pay the next bill again without realizing they have been price-gouged. Not a single mention of this has been made in the papers. The public has either been completely fooled or completely made a fool of. Now that this is working fine, Optus has already announced that it is increasing this charge to $1.30. Before long, you will find many other companies using the Optus way to gouge you.

(A gouge is a chisel-like tool used to shave small amounts of wood, such as when used to make a shallow depression. Price gouging probably derives its meaning from this word. Currently a class action suit is brought against the 4 major banks in Australia for unlawfully charging bank customers for all kinds of reasons. Price gouging will continue to pop up now and then unless legislations are effective enough to stop it.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Portrait Professional Studio

Here is a software that I recently came across and tried out. It is called Portrait Professional Studio. It took me just a few minutes to turn the picture on the left into the picture on the right. This software costs only a fraction of what Photoshop costs. Since I am not willing to spend hours on manipulating the image using Photoshop, this software looks promising to me. It is going to enable me to brush up (pun intended) on any of my portraits and make them look refined in a snap (pun intended).

(By the way, the image has been sculptured to look more glamourous: fuller lips, narrower jaw, longer neck, etc. This is something that mazaine covers do too. The software allows you to make any or all of the sculpturing changes at will)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Notes to myself: ISO settings

Here is another long-held belief that I need to re-examine. My first serious shoot with my new D90 (at that time) was at the Andre Rieu concert and I was disappointed with the result. I mean, here I am with a spanking new camera that I thought was going to take me to new heights in photography. I thought I knew enough about how to get the most out of the camera. I set the ISO to max out at 800... after all the Dpreview website says the ISO in the D90 gets grainy beyond 800.

Again, I refer to Neil van Niekerk as my source of learning. Neil made a very good point: it is far easier to correct noise than to correct for camera shake in post-processing. By setting the ISO to as high as possible (within reasons, I think), it is possible to set the shutter speed high enough for a good shot. Unless you are shooting formal, any noise is usually not noticeable, especially when one seldom prints larger than 5"x7" for informal "happy snaps". On hindsight, I should have allowed my camera to go to maximum ISO and forget about graininess.

Here is a screenshot of the ISO's Neil has used in one of his wedding shoots. It looks as if he shoots at any ISO, and especially at 1600 (which I bet still looks good on his camera). It is worth noting that his purpose for high ISO is not so that he could do away with flash, but so that he could open the aperture wide!

Notes to myself: white balance settings

White balance has always been a big issue for me. I have an Expodisc that really does a great job of calibrating the WB in any lighting condition... except that I seldom use it. The setting up is a chore. Shooting RAW and doing post processing in Lightroom has finally removed all my WB anxiety. I have since then been using Auto WB almost exclusively. Well, that is about to change.

Reading the tips from Neil van Niekerk, I think his approach is worth emulating. He says:
1. Strive for a pleasing WB instead of spending a lot of time trying to get it exactly right. Then use post processing to fine tune it.
2. Instead of using Auto WB, use one of the Presets (Daylight, Shade, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Flash). Then the WB in all the shots can be tweaked by the same amount.

Having said all that, I have been getting satisfactory WB for outdoor shots using Auto WB. I see no reason to change that. However, under artificial lighting, I think I'll take Neil's advice and use one of the Presets.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A few shots and a collage

Here's another go at flash photography. My wife just had her hair done and she wanted me to take some pictures for her. The sky was getting dark very quickly. I grabbed my camera and put on an external flash. The dark sky proved to be quite nice as a backdrop, although I would have preferred some lights from the houses in the distance. I thought the pictures make a nice collage, so I just used Picasa to make one. Very handy. Here is today's work. Flashing is fun and it is perfectly legal to do so!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My first camera

I was fifteen years old at that time. I had never owned a camera before. When my parents went on a holiday they asked what I wanted them to bring back. I asked for a camera. Of course, my parents didn't know the first thing about a camera, and neither did I. I only remembered what they bought me was quite a plasticky thing. I kept it for a long time but I never used it. I am grateful to my parents for listening to me and I believe it was that gift that triggered the love of photography in me. So today, on Mother's Day, I just want to say "Thank you, Mum!"

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My road test with flash

Tonight I did a test run with my new-found confidence in flash photography. The first picture was taken with an external flash the way it should be: the flash was bounced and directed away from the subject, flash in TTL mode, and camera in manual settings. I got a pleasing exposure rightaway. The second picture was taken with the built-in flash, camera in Auto mode. Notice how poorly exposed the background was. I then used Photoshop to improve the exposure - 3rd image. Even then the image is still poor compared with the first one.

Can't wait to do more road tests with my flash!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Shooting flash in default settings?

When I bought my first external flash gun, I thought I had bought the solution to taking all indoor and night pictures. At the time, about the only notion I had about flash was that it was a portable light to make it possible to take pictures when I otherwise couldn't. I thought that a good external flash was all I needed. Then I read about the strobist technique. I thought it was all about taking the flash off the camera. So I bought a low-cost radio transmitter for my flash to fire remotely (before I learned that my D90 has a very useful commander mode). I managed to take some good pictures, but still I was not able to take satisfactory "event" shots. Something was very wrong. Can one not get good flash pictures using all the default settings? Off course, the quick answer is "no" when you are using the built-in flash, but how about an external flash? I put all the lessons I have learned in the past three days to check this out.

(1) In the Auto or P modes in one shooting instance, the maximum shutter speed is automatically set at 1/60 and aperture at f4. In the S mode, the max shutter speed is 1/200s, which is the camera sync speed. At 1/200s shutter speed, my kit lens opens to the maximum aperture of f3.5. Default setting let me down. I was better off using the S mode, and dialing up the shutter speed to the maximum.

(2) Next, I mounted my f1.8 prime lens. In the Auto or P default modes, again, the setting was 1/60s and f4. In S mode, at 1/200s, the aperture opens to f1.8. Therefore in default setting (Auto or P), the best and most expensive lens would have done nothing for me.

(3) In daytime shooting with fill-in flash, there is no default setting on the external flash. It is recommended to use TTL-BL mode instead of TTL mode when the ambient light is brighter than the subject. Since there is no default option, the wrong choice can lead to a poor quality shot. Moreover, as fill-in flash, it is often necessary to stop down the flash to prevent getting the flash look. As the default is zero flash compensation, the user is let down once again.

(4) Untrained, one usually does not try to control how the image background appears. Using modern TTL flash technology, one can set shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to effect how the background looks, while maintaining correct flash exposure (within the limitation of the flash range). The default setting usually gives the flash look. Certainly very amateurish.

Conclusion: I believe it is very unlikely one can get good flash pictures in the default mode.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

One of life's irony

I went to the chicken shop today and bought 3 pieces of fillet meat. It was just under a kilo. Noticing the price that says "$7.90 per kilo (min.1 kg)", I asked for one more piece of fillet. Instead of paying for the extra piece, I was given back $0.85 instead. I didn't need so much meat, but I have to take more in order to pay less. Ironical.

Notes to myself: shutter speed and sync speed

The shutter of an SLR camera consists of two metal curtains that zip across the front of the film or sensor. At fast shutter speed the curtains appear to open and close instantaneously, but at faster shutter speed the second curtain trails the first curtain closely behind. hence, at any instant only a portion of the film or sensor is exposed.

Since a burst of flash is almost instantaneously, it has to fire at a shutter speed that slow enough for both curtains to fully expose the film or sensor. This is called the flash sync speed. Modern cameras will automatically limit the shutter faster to its flash sync speed.

Ironically, point-and-shoot cameras can shoot at high sync speeds because they use electronic shutters. Some newer SLR's that use electronic shutters in addition to the mechanical ones can also do the same.

Some cameras have FP (focal plane) mode whereby the flash will stay on as long as the shutter is opened. This enables shooting at any shutter speed. The effectiveness of the FP mode needs to be checked out.

Slow Sync mode: Remember this as "party mode". Shutter speed autonmatically slows down to capture background lighting under low light. Subject is sharp while background may be blurred.

Rear Curtain Sync: Flash fires just before the close of the second curtain. Used to freeze motion at the end of the exposure. E.g. motorcyle with trailing light.

Notes to myself: flash sync speed

Flash photography is interesting. In particular, flash sync speed. (In some cameras, there is a "flash sync speed" for S-mode, and "flash shutter speed" for A and P modes. For this discussion, I will just use the general term of flash sync speed to mean both)

The theory behind it all is that the flash goes off for a very short time relative to the shutter speed. See picture above. The exposure from flash is the same regardless of shutter speed.

Night time indoor flash photography:
The image is frozen by the flash regardless of shutter setting (which is typically much longer than flash exposure time). Sync speed is not an issue then. To get maximum range, use A mode and set aperture to maximum. P mode can sometimes set itself to less than maximum aperture. Here is where a bright f2.8 lens starts to pay off, as every f-stop counts in night time indoor flash photography.

Daylight fill-in flash photography:
The key point to remember is that with flash, sync speed is the fastest shutter speed you can use, regardless of what your camera is capable of without flash on. Setting the sync speed to the highest possible gives you two advantages that cheaper SLR's (including my Nikon D90, having maximum sync speed of only 1/60s) don't have: a) stop motion, b) better range; hence, smaller flash still produces good result.

When sync speed is set high, the camera can shoot at larger aperture, which means the flash does not work as hard, which means it will recycle faster. Faster sync speed helps you to get enough flash power to balance with direct sunlight.

1. Contribution from flash is the same regardless of shutter speed. Only distance, aperture, and ISO affects it.
2. Different ISO and apertures don't change the ratio between flash and ambient light.
3. Ratio between flash and ambient light is affected by distance, shutter speed, and flash power.
4. A faster sync speed gives more range. Set at larger aperture, less power from flash is required.

The above information is gleaned from this website:

All said and done, flash photography requires one to really know the limitations of his own camera and his flash. What works on one camera may not work as well on another. Try changing sync speed, shutter speed, aperture and ISO under different lighting condition to see what happens! Finally, dont forget to try out TTL vs TTL-BL where ambient light is weaker than subject, and vice-versa.

When will Aussie house prices stop growing?

This is my own prediction. It is not based on any gathered data. Aussie house prices will continue to grow unabated as long as the government ignores the China factor. For your information, Melbourne house prices rose 28% last year alone. Real estate agents say that 30-40% of the buyers are investors from mainland China. In recognition of this, the government last week reversed its policy of allowing non-residents to buy homes here. This has not cooled the market one bit and I think the government fails to recognize the extent of the problem. The astute will recognize that there are still ways for non-residents to buy into the market here despite the policy reversal. Non-residents, mainland Chinese in particular, seem to be on a buying spree overseas. Perhaps they are doing this to hedge the yuan, which is under pressure to devalue. Perhaps there are reasons why they do not want to keep the money in China. Surely they'll find the price of houses here to be a bargain compared with what they have to pay back home. Why wouldn't they? All the major urban areas are heavily congested and landed properties are only for the super rich.

I believe that as long as they are able to, mainland Chinese will keep buying all the properties that they can get their hands on, either directly or indirectly through a third party, either here or in another Western country. The Australian Central Bank thinks that raising interest rates will cool the housing market. I think it will only reduce the number of local buyers and make it even easier for foreign cashed-up buyers to keep acquiring properties here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Post-GFC fallout in Greece

In some countries the effects of the GFC (global financial crisis that started in Q4 2008) are still being played out. Greece, in particular, is in danger of going into bankruptcy. Many reasons contribute to this situation; suffice to say that Greece is a country that has borrowed more than it can pay back and it is simultaneously facing a plunge in revenue. This situation is no different from what many individuals face today: a person gets a good income; he starts spending beyond his means; the job environment changes and he finds his income dropping. All of a sudden, he finds himself in a liquidity trap. His expenses continue to come in but he couldn't get his pay to come in fast enough. He is now staring in the face of bankruptcy.

Greece's membership in the euro has denied it the ability to devalue its currency at this time of need. It is forced to take drastic measures to reduce its deficit and to increase taxes. Salaried workers see their tax rise from 10% to 38% all of a sudden. Keep yourselves tuned in to what's playing out in Greece, as well as Portugal, Spain, and Italy.... the global financial crisis is not over yet for many people and many countries.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Debutante ball in Australia

This is not a wedding scene. It is a group of students going to the debutante ball. My daughter is one of them. This picture is taken in front of my house. The black Hummer limousine was hired by the participants to take them to the ball. By definition, this event signifies a young lady's entry into society.

Australian high schools have a tradition of holding the debutante ball for their Year 11 students (i.e 16 year-olds). The girl get to invite a boy from the same school year and in the same school to be their partner for the ball. For this year, thirty-four debutantes participated, which is about 20% of the students in my daughter's year. What happens if a boy wants to participate but is not invited by any girl? Too bad for him; he can only go as a guest.

For more pictures (very interesting!), go to the professional photographer's site:

Some of my own pictures are posted here: