Shooting Digital and Aperture 3

Some of you may be relieved to know that this post is not about shooting film. It's about shooting digital and dealing with the resulting images using Apple Aperture 3. It's born out of a few conversations I have had in the last week or so via email and in various comments left here. The gist of those discussions were that a few people were surprised that a few of the random images that I post here for no particular reason were actually shot on digital. Specifically shot using my Nikon D7000 that I have no great love for but consider adequate. While the vast majority of digitally captured images I post are OOC JPEGs there are a couple that absolutely require a bit of intervention. Their surprise was that the images didn't look digital given the obvious conditions they were shot under.

I thought would share a few thoughts on both shooting digital under lousy conditions as well as how I adjust the resulting RAW files to get to an image that in some way I find aesthetically pleasing. In some ways my target is inspired by how I think it would look if I happened to be shooting film. There are a couple of factors when I think about it that I believe are critical to what I happen to like. Your milage may vary so season to taste.

The image I chose for this conversation was shot a few days ago at my community's annual fourth of July celebration. As usual I was recruited to be the event photographer. I have no idea why, I guess it's because I have a good camera. Truth be told I hate photographing these kinds of events. They are held at the worst possible time of day. Not early enough and not late enough - pretty much midday which lasts a long time in July. There are a million things going on that I am expected to "cover" so I cannot really focus on what I find interesting from a photographic standpoint. I am compelled to shoot the official event going on at the moment. Simultaneously I have a dozen people ask me if I "got" something that just happened 300 yards from where I happen to be shooting this moment. Another dozen people asking me what kind of lens I'm using. To top it all off I am starting to believe that each and every event organizer is part of a large conspiracy to arrange the participants in the worst possible way with respect to light, composition and access to a reasonable vantage point.

Case in point - the image at the top of the post. The teen class of the pie eating contest. Hmmm lets take the participants and put them at the tables all facing away from the nice indirect light under the tent. You see this leaves all of them in darkness with a horrifically bright background lit by the oppressive midday sun. A recipe for digital disaster. We also have 92 kids smashed up to the opposite side of the table to watch leaving little room to maneuver or find a decent point of view without knocking a bunch of children out of the way. Not a chance I am going to do that. I would have rather photographed the kids watching but that would not meet the expectations of the art directors - I mean event organizers.

There are a couple of things I knew about the D7000, these lighting conditions, and how I wanted this image to render before I ever lifted the camera to my eye. Those things are critical in my opinion.

  • There is no way to hold the highlights and the shadows here on digital without fill flash which would have looked like shit due to the relative distances of my subjects from camera. My subjects were in shadow where I wanted snap and detail. The only highlight I care about was on face of the girl closest to the camera. There are a lot of people that think the D7000 overexposes - not really but it does give far more liberal exposure in the shadows of backlit subjects like this compared to previous incarnations of Nikon matrix metering. In this case that was good. In most cases this is good from my perspective. If I were using one of my older Nikons I probably would have dialed about a stop of additional exposure over what the matrix metering was telling me. The reason this is important is that even though the subjects would be darker than they should be I wouldn't have to pull the faces up from almost black. That results in really ugly looking noise, lack of tonal information, and bad color. In situations like this those little blinkies are not always a bad thing - just pay attention to where they are. I much rather have liberal exposure in the shadows of images like this then detail in the brightest crap in the background.
  • Knowing that I was going to have blinkies there are two extremely important things when shooting. First make sure they are dispersed and not giant swaths of funky looking blown highlight in the background. I made sure of that with framing for the most part. There were a ton of pixels smashed up against the righthand side of the all knowing histogram but they were sprinkled about the whole image. Having that taken care of now comes the really critical part - make them out of focus. This was easy using the 35mm f1.8G Nikkor shooting this close. I shot at f2.8 that gave me a nice soft transition while still allowing things to be very recognizable like the expression on the black girls face. Shooting blown highlights and especially transition areas out of focus hides a multitude of digital sins like where the out of focus dark hair is against super bright sunlit stuff. Trust me on this enough to do your own experiments to see what I am talking about. As a side note this is very difficult to do with anything smaller than an APS-C sensor and normal-ish lens. Also note that no matter what the amount of internet chatter regarding the horrid bokeh of the 35 f1.8 I find this not to be the case at all. In fact I find the out of focus rendering pretty decent as lenses go. There are plenty of lenses that do render everything horribly but almost all lenses, even lenses with "great" out of focus rendering will not change a horrendous background unless they complete transmute it into a slurry of unrecognizable nothingness. In practice this is very seldom what I want and very very few normal focal length lenses will do it at most normal subject distances - even on FX. A personal quirk of mine has been playing with out of focus context layered at prominent places within the frame for a very long time. This image is not my best example. In many cases it doesn't work at all but it's something I love to play with and I am surprisingly happy with the way the 35mm 1.8 performs. This lens has been glued to my D7000 since I got it.
  • Last but certainly not least - shoot RAW in circumstances like these. I had no delusions that this image was going to need some pixels shoved around. Specifically important shadows that are too dark, blown highlight areas, an important highlight on the skin, and WB that is going to be all over the map in various areas of the frame including two or three different colors of light on the same skin.

I apologize for the thousand words or so to get to the part that I am sure everyone wants - the post adjustments but I really wanted to emphasize that taking a lot into account when shooting is probably more important than some sort of one size fits all post production recipe. Knowing your camera, it's limitations, it's behavior, and what you want the end result to look like is 90% of the battle. I spend quite a bit of time with cameras to really get to know what the absolute limit of detailed whites it will capture at a given exposure. What lenses look like at what apertures, etc. before I ever trust myself to shoot anything "important".

Here is what the resulting JPEG looked like prior to post processing but that was no surprise…

Here is a full size screenshot of the Aperture 3 adjustments applied which I will discuss below. You may want to open the screenshot in a different window as it's quite huge…

First up is white balance. The all important white balance. Mine happens to be set to the new fangled "skin mode" of Aperture 3.3 - not important. I would love to tell you that the eye dropper tool is the new magic fix. It's not. The way that the skin mode works may help you out if you are just figuring out what kind of look you want, feel free to click all over the place until something happens that you like and then use the slider to fine tune from there. Personally I don't bother and just adjust by eye until I get to what suits my tastes. The nice thing about the skin mode is that the slider has a fairly limited range that allows a very fine degree of adjustment. This is a good thing since a little tiny bit of WB adjustment goes a long long way. This is even more critical once you get in the ball park. The part where I mentioned that I do it by eye is important - even more so when the color temperatures are all over the map on skin. Don't get hung up on the numbers or some one size fits all recipe. Ignore any notion of scientific-ness. If this flies in the face of what notions you have been fed by all the companies selling all manner of devices to fix WB for you then consider this… Where the hell would you put your handy dandy WB fixer in this scene? The point is that the mix of cool and warm and all the varying degrees inbetween can be made attractive but only your eyes will tell you where that is. In this scene you not only see color temps on skin all over the map but also the huge diversity of skin tones that exist in the real world. Play with it until you find your aesthetic - one thing I find particularly disquieting is the homogenization of skin coloration in a lot of what I see today. Go take a look at your local magazine seller's rack. Note the homogeneity of caucasian skin coloration on all the covers.

Next up we have the exposure block. The only thing of real meaning in this case is recovery. It's pretty darned high but only high enough to get back critical detail within the highlight to shadow transition on the girls face on the righthand side of the frame and that's it. One sure fire way to completely destroy the and nuance feeling of the light is to do this "by the numbers". By this I am talking about either using "show lost highlights/shadows" or command dragging the sliders until all the "lost" highlights are now "found" again. If you want to make it especially disastrous, bland, boring, digital looking, and somehow just off in a way hard to pinpoint then continue find all those lost highlights with the highlights/shadow controls if you couldn't get them "back" with just the recovery slider. Eliminating my oft misinterpreted sarcasm - do it by eye - forget the blinkies and the red patches on the screen. Look at the image and let it guide you.

Don't get me wrong I am not recommending that you don't use the H+S tool - it's wonderful but I rarely use it for both highlights and shadows I usually find it better to come at it from one direction or the other depending on how the image was shot. In this case I had to deal with both but mainly the shadows. There are a million ways to get to the same place the one thing that is often important is that getting rid of all the red/blue patches as seen in show lost highlights/shadows is not always the way to go - again use your eyes.

Now we get to the enhance block - note the tiny little bump in contrast. Please do not take this as a recipe - it's not. My method to deal with highlights when they are an issue involves tiny little tweaks to recovery/exposure/contrast until the image looks like it should in my minds eye in a way that retains the feeling of the light. In this case to deal with the side of the girls face I needed to over-recover and then bump the contrast up a hair somewhat undoing the upper reaches of the recovery tool and making them white again. This is because the exact tones that get manipulated by the sliders don't match up with what "needs" to be manipulated. It just happens this was the quickest way to do it visually for me. I could have ended up at the same destination by playing with the extended range curves but probably a bit more slowly.

Let's skip the curves block for a moment - we'll come right back to it. I actually used the H+S block first to knock up the values in the faces of the two girls to where I could see color and the tonal gradations became obvious instead of muddy. Going further with the shadows slider I found that it was not looking "right" it was starting to destroy the feeling of the light again. I wanted a tiny bit more lift but also a bit more poppy-ness in those mids. I almost never use the mid-contrast slider in H+S - it adds contrast in the wrong places for what I want. Even if I use the H+S block I find curves far more useful in dealing with mid-tones and I usually use it after I get the shadows into the ballpark of where I think they should be.

Next I used a curves preset - not because it's the magic curve but because in a lot of different situations I find myself using a curve of this general shape and magnitude on D7000 images processed in Aperture so I saved it as a preset a while ago. After I applied it I actually backed off the shadows boost a bit. I could have messed with the curve, or started a curve from scratch and ended with the same effect - again by eye. It doesn't matter that much - it was quicker just to back off the shadows slider for me on this image. If that didn't get to where I wanted it to go - I would have messed about with the curve.

We ended up here…

Feel free to use this curve and see how it does for you in various lighting conditions and your camera. Tweak it all you want. You may want denser blacks as mine are not all that black but I like a hair lower dmax than most digi-shooters and screen-presenters these days. If you would like, I will even package it up as a preset so you can have the exact same one to be sure you aren't doing anything wrong. I realized that without even trying my personal approach to post processing digital is absolutely informed from the aesthetics I enjoy when shooting film. This particular image and this particular curve that I use more than occasionally are reasonable examples of that. As I thought about this it became clear that this particular curve does exactly what a film shooter would expect once the shadows are brought up out of the muck and the pure white highlights are brought a little back from the brink. It adds a bit of lower mid tone punch and smooths out the upper mid to highlight transitions. Exactly what I expect to see when shooting film.

This is not a recipe for "getting a film look" nor a preset - in fact I never really thought of it this way until I had the conversations with a few readers that I referenced. I thought it might be useful to some of you to see it that are having a difficult time getting a look you like considering the only curves I ever see happen to be shaped like S's. Definitely let me know if these kinds of non-recipe post processing discussions are something that you get anything out of. I have shied away from image manipulation posts for the most part as I don't really understand what people find useful in this realm.


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