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The TPU Darkroom - Digital SLR and Photography Club

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Still been messing around with photographing RGB in the dark. It's kind of a difficult thing to do. The camera wants 50% gray, so the very small points of very strong highlights don't factor into the average enough... meaning light sources blow out very aggressively as the camera tries mostly to expose everything else, which is very dark. So you wind up doing long, grainy, cornea-dissolving exposures if you rely on it.

Normally, this is fine. The camera tried to get you the exposure with the most usable information (only this time a small, yet critical portion of it will never be usable.) You can typically slide parts of the histogram back to the left as needed. Usually this is what you would do if you want higher-quality night photos. In most other night/low-light situations, the light that is there is at least a little more even. Before editing, it looks like daylight, but you can bring the parts that are supposed to be dark down and get pretty close to realistic without any noise or detail loss in the shadows.

With these, I'm finding the opposite is true, but it is a PITA of a compromise. I basically underexpose right to the point where the highlights just start to blow out. What you get is an image where you see only the RGB light sources and maybe a little bit of ambient light and contours. The rest is almost completely silhouetted. Just a tiny bit of clipping is ideal. Going just a little too high fucks your light sources up beyond repair, but you also don't wanna go too low or there will be nothing to recover in the shadows. You can fix slight clipping in the highs by lowering the luminosity slider for the affected colors (along with hue shifts to bring the colors that the blown-out parts change to closer to the colors they're supposed to be,) bringing down the whites/highlights a little (doesn't work the other way around,) reducing clarity/increasing defog... there are all sorts of things you can do to wash them out.

Some of the harshness in the lights goes away naturally when you bring the contrast down to ease the harsh loss of detail in the shadows and bring more of them closer to the midtones. I may raise exposure 1/3 of a stop, depending on how low I've managed to push the highlights. You really can't get away with more than a full stop of boosting before the noise in the shadows starts taking over, and really I only want to bring up certain dark portions, I raise exposure only to push up the midtones - and then when I do I'll compensate by dialing back the highlights/shadows. I'll do much more to bring up the shadows and the blacks than I will to bring up the whole exposure.

You lose a little contrast with these tricks, but gain a lot of detail. It is surprising, how much you can pull from what comes out of the camera looking absolute black..

There are a million things you can do to make something out of these exposures (if anyone's curious I can explain it more.) It's just not the best... you do still lose a whole lot of IQ and it takes A LOT of tweaking. With some creativity, the IQ loss doesn't matter as much, but the process is a bitch - you can't just do a bunch of global edits and hope it does what you want, you have to make a lot of local adjustments with graduated filters and adjustment brushing.

Sometimes you get interesting results. There's a lot of drama but it doesn't look completely ridiculous and if you're careful the image gains a semblance of realism as well as looking like it's supposed to look that way - it can have more realistic depth and dimension... instead of it looking like 'abstract art' or like you made the camera do things it's not meant to do.

Here's the out of camera exposure. All I do is go as low on the ISO as possible and tactically underexpose - I think in this case it was 2 or 3 stops. You see the red turning orange and then yellow at the brightest points. Up to the very upper threshold of this range, that is fixable... so long as there's nothing white or approaching white.

124503


I and people I've shown pictures like this think they're pretty neat. But the style of it really limits how much you can really do with the mood or the overall impression. It's a little tiring on the eyes and once you've seen one picture like this, you've seen them all. Like I said before, there's no depth or dimension. I wouldn't want every picture of RGB stuff to look like this... you miss so many interesting things. The images always come out simple.

So here's a few samples of what I manage with edits... for the most part, I did them all separately, just wound up at similar points.

124504

124505

124506


I think it looks better this way... or at least much truer to life. I should've taken the exposure the camera likes just to show how bad a job it does of capturing things like this. It takes things that are very bright and makes them super-white, while it tries to make all of the things that are actually almost completely black middle gray. Ah... I'm sure many of you have tried. And maybe you found a better way than me!

In my case, the noise was still pretty bad this time, but heavy NR was viable because there's not a lot of fine detail to begin with outside of the edges of the lights, which aren't as affected. I got away with cranking the NR to smooth out the keys. To me, it's still not quite natural. Still pretty video gamey. The lower-mids always come out losing a lot of fine texture when I use this technique. It's too far below the noise, which also keeps me from quite bringing it up enough to look 'correct' next to my memory. It winds up both harsh and washed-out. Additionally, the drop-off at the black point means that you can lose separation between things that truly should be black and things that are sort of a darker gray. It all just looks one or the other... none of that fineness to the ambient shadows. Makes any depth you perceive initially seem like an optical illusion.

I'm still wracking my brain for alternatives. This all I have that somewhat works for these kinds of images. I used the same trick with the TridentZ picture I posted a little while back.

HDR has potential, but that gets dicey, too. I have tried just bracketing out an HDR composite from the auto exposure, but because that exposure itself already has blowout - the light sources get completely dodged out. So I tried spot metering around the frame - I would go into aperture priority, find the exposure for the darkest/brightest points, find the middle exposure, and bracketing from there. This gives a result with enormously better contrast detail and low noise, but it still just looks completely exaggerated. Might work sometimes.

But then, using *this* technique more, I think maybe I could keep it simpler. Just two images might be best - one that's exposed dark enough to make the lights start to look right and another that brings the dark parts around one stop over how they naturally look. If I map the shadows and highlights right, all of the information I'm trying to pull out of the single dark exposure should be there with more detail/control and less noise. All I want is for the lights to look their natural color/brightness and for the dark parts to be visible much like they are in real life. And it's not like there's a huge and really granular contrast range across the whole image. The dark parts and the emissive light illuminating them likely doesn't have more dynamic range than a modern DSLR can adequately deal with. It's just that the RGB light sources themselves are orders of magnitude brighter than literally everything else - and that's only limited to the local light on actual source, not the rest of the light in the shot. So, it's basically a completely normal low-light exposure + some small, super bright lights. Something like a 90/10 balance there. Take that 10% out and it's a normal exposure with normal contrast to it.

There has to be a reasonable way to bridge that gap.

I could forget the meter and use live view for that. Just eyeball, more or less, what I know to be a workable shot of just the light sources and then dial the exposure up until the darker parts look nice. I could even graduate it a little bit to reach into different points in the midtones. Actually that's really intuitive. I'm trusting the meter when I already know it can't help me in this situation. I might try that next time I do something like this. I know composites are gonna be the way to go. It's just that normal methods aren't going to work. Everything I read about low-light is the opposite of what works here.

Bleh, maybe next time I actually learn something helpful. :p
 
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nice but the contrast is too high, you took it at noon?
Yep, it was around 11:00 am with no clouds in the sky so the contrast was super high to start with and I was afraid to change it too much and have it look overprocessed.


There has to be a reasonable way to bridge that gap.
My favorite thing to do with product shots like that is to bounce a light source off a piece of paper to get a really soft light source on the subject. You may be able to do something like that to bridge the gap and give more details to the shadows in those images. I think thats why the TridentZ shot works so well since there's a bit of ambient light over most of the image.


Here's Bryce Canyon from a few weeks back.

Bryce Canyon
by Matt
 
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My favorite thing to do with product shots like that is to bounce a light source off a piece of paper to get a really soft light source on the subject. You may be able to do something like that to bridge the gap and give more details to the shadows in those images. I think thats why the TridentZ shot works so well since there's a bit of ambient light over most of the image.
First of all, that is an AMAZING photo. Breathtaking panorama. Damn, man. Hats off to you.

That's a good tip for a makeshift diffuser. I will definitely be trying that, so thank you! I'm familiar with concept of bounce flash and things like that, but I never considered other methods of softening a weaker light source. I have been thinking of ways to get control over light for low-light shooting, though. First thought was my phone. I already have a mount for the hot shoe - I use my phone as a larger display and with the help of an app even get touch screen control of the camera. It's pretty awesome when you're stationary on a tripod - just a lot more comfortable, especially for shots where manual focus is the only way, such as with narrow DOF close-ups or really far-out landscape and/or wide-angle stuff, where you really need the sharpness to start and end at very specific points. Also just good on posture. No need to hunch over the camera at wierd angles while gazing closely at a bright screen for extended periods of time with a phone on top.

But then... that made me think about what exactly is stopping me from turning the phone around and just using a blank screen as a close-up light source. Give me an app that simply displays a white screen with a brightness slider and I think I might have something super-useful on the cheap. Or I could turn it around and use the flashlight with a dimmer app for a little less power and a lot more distance.

I also did some shooting on Saturday just using my monitor as a light source. I had Spotify open, so it was really dim. From there I just had notepad open and resized the window as needed to get my light. It worked extrodinarily well for composites!

Ultimately what I'm leaning towards for these situations is a continuous light. I like the idea of being able to see what I'm exposing for before I press the shutter... and being able to tweak it and see the effect. A basic portable one would work great. Something I can set up OR take around. I'm not interested in portraits so no fear of cooking models. I know strobes are more powerful, but I don't see myself using them for my means - I actually want something dimmer. A strobe probably will not spare me of my troubles. Though at some point I will have both, since they both come in handy for a bunch of things :p


But like I was saying, I played a little with lighting the keyboard up on Saturday and it was undeniably better. The keys themselves gained so much texture and dimension, they almost don't look real in close-ups. I'm really pleased. I also did HDR composites... 20 different 5-shot composites in all. I was at it for 2 hours setting them up, hehe. The light just wasn't doing nearly enough to go against the LEDs on its own. They're just too absurdly brighter than anything else - by the time the external light starts to ease things, it also starts adding to the light cast from the LEDs. That or the keys start to reflect almost pure white while the LEDs are blown out as ever. And underexposing just kills contrast. But the light did help immensely with getting the dark areas up to a workable exposure.

My assumption on how to bracket was right. The exposure the camera wants as "correct" can really only be used as the brightest shot. It's very consistently about as bright as you can go without severe IQ loss. From there I went 4 stops down, one at a time and that seemed to get me the range I needed. If that last shot is nothing but deep red letters and maybe a little bit of contour, I know I've gotten the stack squared-up right. It really helps with getting around the LEDs just overpowering everything and blowing out. Like I said, it seemed more necessary with the light from the monitor... just to avoid a wash-out. I still need to feel it out a little bit. The more the camera looks directly into them, the more they blow out. And then, on the flipside with the way they reflect light, the keys appear darker as the camera's angle to them gets more direct. I think I will need to up my light source and bring down the brightest exposure to keep them from blowing out harshly. When looking at a steep enough angle, it looks dead-on, with the letters crisp/property colored, and with the keys looking pristinely contrasted and textured.

I feel a lot better about Adobe's HDR after seeing what I saw with the images I took. My basic understanding of how it maps things is that it uses the range of exposures you feed it to expand the range of the sliders accordingly, which is hugely useful with the right exposures. If your shots amount to 4 stops of range, that's pretty much exactly how much added usable range you get out of the sliders vs. the middle exposure alone. You have the power to make two profoundly different images with neither of them looking baked. The real key is to bracket so that you capture mainly the contrast range that you need most. In my case it was the darker parts of the image, so I made my brightest exposure correctly pick-up the brightest parts of my shadows, went down till I grabbed the darkest, and then went down again to grab just the highlights.

Most of them really don't need much editing to look right, if any. It's just a matter of capturing that perfect range with your bracketed shots. The result is really trippy to look at. You can tell it's a real keyboard, and to me, being able to see it under the light the exposures were taken in, it looks very much the same as in the pictures. But there's also something about it that makes it looks like an impossibly good render. I actually really like it.

The best part was that it completely did away with the noise. My brightest exposure was 30" at ISO 200, while the rest were faster at ISO 100. Knowing this, I'd happily take it up to ISO 800 to use the narrowest of apertures for full-focus close-ups. I was too wary and my images suffered for having too narrow of an aperture... but that really is a multifaceted issue for me right now.

Those two things ended up being huge breakthroughs... things I will definitely be refining and using a lot as I delve more into product photography. It was like "Ahh... YES! There it is! It's everything I said I wanted!" All of the focus on rigor and method finally got me somewhere, I think!

I promise I will put a handful up as soon as possible. :oops: I am so fried right now the idea of intently looking and focusing my eyes like that gives me a headache. Anything even remotely work-like is just not happening right now. I should not be awake at all. o_O


There's one thing I wish I realized wayyyy sooner. I really only caught it after plugging my phone into my camera and seeing it on that enlarged display. Even when shooting raw, the camera sharpens everything it feeds to the display. At first I thought it was just due to looking on a smaller screen, but it's still kinda there when you zoom in. I finally know why every shot looks 2 stops softer. :/ I'm gonna have to train myself to work around it, as I see no way of turning it off... maybe there's something in the Magic Lantern menu. But it is literally like, I need to narrow the aperture by at least a couple of notches before I actually capture the DOF that I see in live view and even in previews. It's been plaguing shots where I sit and work out that perfect manual focus, where I watch the edges of my DOF and carefully focus to suit the composition as best as I can. And then I look at the exported images and it's anywhere from *juuust* off enough to notice, to flow-breakingly off. With a keyboard in particular, it's especially jarring to my eyes.

It may be more than LR can correct for, too. I think once I'm done in LR and I've exported my scaled down images to around 50%, I may take the jpegs into PS for some selective unsharp masking... like I used to do with shitty cellphone images lol.


EDIT: Alright... here's one. Obviously still some things to address, but it's already much better with just a few simple measures. It just has so much more going for it right off the bat. I think the exposures I used still weren't quite right. Or maybe there's one in there that's making it harsher than it should be. The deepest shadows before black are fake-deep... as in there's a point in the middle towards the deeper tones where there's no gradient. Something I'll have to experiment more with. It'll take some trial-and-error before I just know which exposures I need to get the right contrast for a given shot. Some of it is finger gook, which alongside of dust was my bane on this day. The dust is trivial to edit out. The shmutz is irreparable.

124630
 
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Meanwhile...
half expecting Father Ted to come walking out

so is there a good one (payment)-and-done software that comes close to approaching how good Lightroom is? e.g. how about the ones that sometimes hit Humble Bundle? mainly looking for auto adjustments, rotation from camera sensors... and lens aberration correction would be a nice bonus
 

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half expecting Father Ted to come walking out
True story - I actually turned to my pakistani friend and said in my best irish accent... "So i hear father..... That youre a racist" somewhere onroute when we were looking at the amazing scenery.
 

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True story - I actually turned to my pakistani friend and said in my best irish accent... "So i hear father..... That youre a racist" somewhere onroute when we were looking at the amazing scenery.
Gorgeous pic :)

I was more inclined to look for pointy helmets on top screaming about elderberries and k-niggits :)
124797
 
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A few more recent pics...




 
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