Nov 162008

Villach was a good choice after all. I moved only about 20km to the west, but the weather is remarkably better here. Much less fog, much more sun.

Yesterday I spent insane amounts of time processing that image of a silly sign in Vienna, building layer upon layer until I was at 28. Stupid, huh? Well, my only excuse is that I didn’t have any other image and was curious if I could make it at least remotely usable. I may have managed that, but certainly not more 🙂

When I finally left for shooting, it was around 3pm, a sunny afternoon with about one hour to go. So far I don’t know all those convenient places around the corner, undoubtedly to be discovered soon, thus I sat into the car and played safe.

I took the street down south, about 10km by car, about 6km line of sight from home, over some hills and through a forest, and then reached Drobollach, a village on the northern shore of Faaker See, one of the many beautiful lakes in Carinthia. The village is situated on a small hill, overlooking the lake, and behind that, Mittagskogel, the most prominent mountain in Villach’s surroundings. You’ve seen it many times before, the last time here, but now we are much nearer and it is the pyramid shape as seen from Villach, that is normally associated with this peak.

From the very same point one has another interesting view, and yesterday the light was extremely favorable: To the north-east, prominently sitting on top of a mighty rock, there is the small parish church of Sternberg, another landmark that you have seen, once in a slightly tilted image.

Both images so far have been taken with the Nikon 70-300 VR at 300mm. I really love the effect that the compression has on the hills, especially under this dramatic light.

Maybe less than a kilometer further on, the street leading around Faaker See touches the lake, and for my convenience there is even a place to park the car. Small wonder that when I arrived, I found a woman taking pictures.

I changed to the Sigma 10-20, the sun was almost down behind the mountains in the west, and I had to hurry. For this image I climbed over the guard rail and crouched down almost at water level. The mountain in the background is Mittagskogel again. Quite a difference between 15mm (equiv) and 450 mm (equiv)!

From that slightly dangerous vantage point there was not much more to get, at least not with this lens, thus I got back up to street level and took some bracketed exposures of boats and landings during the sundown. I still have my tripod in the apartment (maybe I should get a third :), and it probably would not have done me much good anyway. I only had some minutes left and needed to go as near as possible to the fences, in order to get them out of view.

I took these images with the intention to run them through Photomatix Pro 3.1 and Essential HDR 1.0. Photomatix claims much progress in automatic alignment and the elimination of movement artifacts, while Essential HDR points to its superior tone mapping algorithms.

Of the five bracketed shots I have only tried the one that ended up as Image of the Day, and both programs failed. Both did a good job in aligning the handheld shots, but Photomatix produced ugly tone mapping results (at least when you don’t like the “typical” HDR look), and Essential HDR, while much better at tone mapping, introduced hard to remove artifacts at extreme highlights, where even the darkest exposure had burned out.

This is not a general criticism of these two programs. Both can produce extremely good results and have done so for me in the past, but under these exact conditions both failed. No problem when you have a fallback strategy.

I ended up developing the five images in DxO Optics Pro, letting the program correct lens distortions, and then combined them as layers in Photoshop CS3. The first step was to select all five layers, use “Edit / Align layers …” and crop the result. Then I have applied masks manually, added some saturation and contrast and cloned out a lens flare. Not so bad, I guess.

The Song of the Day is “Good Day Sunshine” from the 1966 Beatles album “Revolver”. Hear it on YouTube.

743 – This Is A Test

 Nikon 18-200 VR, Sigma 50/1.4  Comments Off on 743 – This Is A Test
Oct 262008

Yesterday I did not shoot anything but some test images, none of them did I want to make Image of the Day. This is from the archives, an image from the crypt below the Dome of Speyer, Germany. I shot it with the D200 in July 2007, using the Nikon 18-200 VR at f8, ISO 1600 and 1/3s, handheld. I’ve converted it with DxO and added some local contrast later in Photoshop.

I am still in Carinthia, it’s Sunday now and I have managed to install DxO 5.3 yesterday evening. We can carry on with the review.

Let me begin with a correction. In “741 – Just Another Day On Earth” I originally said that “what Adobe Camera RAW does and DxO seemingly not, is the automatic elimination of hot pixels“. This is wrong. Yesterday I found out that DxO can automatically eliminate what they term “dead pixels”, it’s only not on by default, and it is hidden down in the options for noise reduction. Sorry for the false alarm.

In a comment to that post Nick Jungels said that

Looking at DxO Optics, the noise performance seems very, very similar to running Noise Ninja. At least in my one comparison the pictures were virtually identical (as far as noise goes).

Have you compared the DxO versus any of these other noise reduction options?

At that moment I had not, this is what I want to look into today, and here is the image that we will look at in some variations and detail. You see now why I used an old image for the Image of the Day?

I made three versions of this image: At ISO6400 and correctly lit, at ISO 3200 and one stop underexposed, and finally at ISO 3200 and underexposed by three stops. All three images were shot handheld with the D300 and the Sigma 50/1.4 at f4. High ISO noise reduction in the camera was set to “low” (from a standard of “normal”), exposure times were 1/60s and 1/250s. Fairly normal values for low light street photography. Let’s begin with a 100%crop:

You really have to click on the image for the 100% view to see the differences. Left is the result of Adobe Camera RAW 4.6, in the middle the same with Noise Ninja applied, and on the right is the output of DxO.

As to processing: First I have created the DxO image on standard settings, with the preset for high-ISO images applied. This produces stronger contrast, dark shadows, uses stronger noise reduction and also takes care of dead pixels. Then I have loaded the original RAW file into Adobe Camera RAW, without sharpening and with the exposure parameters set to automatic. Later in Photoshop I used adjustment layers to match this much lighter image to the look of the output of DxO. Basically I pulled all there was into Photoshop, and then toned it down, along with all noise. I think this is fair and as comparable as it gets.

There are quite some differences. Obviously the quality of Adobe Camera RAW without noise reduction is not really acceptable. There is a high level of noise, grain is coarse and we see much color noise as well.

Applying Noise Ninja made the image much better. This is not the detail that we expect from a 12 megapixel image, but for ISO 6400 it is the best that we can get without inventing detail.

DxO delivers a tad more sharpness, but that was to be expected as it did some sharpening and Adobe Camera RAW was set to do not. What’s obviously better, is color noise. Noise Ninja took care of the high-frequency color noise, but some low frequency noise, i.e. big color blotches, remained. The difference is not dramatic, but it is there.

Looking at the differences at 200% is more revealing. DxO produces a very fine grain on pixel level, Noise Ninja struggles with color noise. Overall I’d say that the result of DxO is more pleasing, looks less like digital artifacts, but you really have to care about pixel peeping to get a kick out of it.

Let’s do the same once again, this time with an image taken at ISO 3200, but underexposed by one stop. At 100% we see basically the same situation.

Please ignore the systematic tonal differences and the color difference in the dark tones. That’s an artifact of my method. I simply was not able to exactly match outputs. Let’s concentrate on noise instead.

Noise levels are slightly lower, the difference between Adobe Camera RAW + Noise Ninja and DxO is hardly visible.

At 200% it’s pretty much a tie, but from the looks I’d prefer DxO again. The fine grain actually looks nice, not like typical digital noise at all. On the other hand: both are clearly acceptable.

Then I turned to the ISO 3200 image underexposed by three stops, effectively pushing the image to ISO 25600, and this is the point where DxO breaks spectacularly. I did not even include a 200% comparison here, it is obvious. DxO smudges away detail like mad. I have tried for quite some time to find settings that would improve the result, but to no avail. In fact, this seems to be the best it can do under these conditions.

And Noise Ninja? Still riding the waves. The result that it produces is unusable as well, but compared to DxO it does not break, it degenerates slowly.

What’s the verdict now? If forensics is your job and you need to get the last information out of an image, even if you won’t be able to use it for any aesthetic purposes, then Noise Ninja is your tool. In any other case DxO seems as good or better, partly depending upon your aesthetic preferences.

In my eyes this result is not disappointing, not at all. After all, Noise Ninja is one of the best noise reduction plugins on the planet, one of three or four tools that constitute the state of the art. That DxO plays in that league and maybe slightly tops it, is quite remarkable, given that noise reduction is only one card in DxO’s game.

What about the price? Currently Noise Ninja and Neat Image cost around $70, Nik Software’s Define 2.0 is sold by Amazon for around $80, while DxO Optics will cost you $170 or $300, depending on your camera. Thus you’ll clearly have to need something else out of DxO’s portfolio to justify the purchase.

We’ll look closer into these things in other posts. Stay tuned.

The Song the Day is “This Is A Test” from Wendy James’ 1993 collaboration with Elvis Costello Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears

Sorry, no sound samples, but looking for Wendy James on YouTube will give you some videos and an idea of what to expect.

Dec 172007

After two weeks of having the Nikon D300, it is time again to spend some words on this camera. You know, every new gadget is interesting and it takes some time to get used to it, but two weeks, that’s enough for more than an impression.

Now once again: Was it worth it? My spontaneous answer on the first day was “yes”, and it won’t really surprise you that I stick to it. The D200 already was a camera with a lot of professional features, and the D300 beats it in almost every respect. Its autofocus is much better, especially in darkness, its image quality is higher, the automatic features just work and get it right more often, the fabulous monitor and the 100% viewfinder are a blessing. This is an almost perfect tool. It has its limitations as any tool, but when you know them, there are hardly any surprises.

I have not used all of the functions. I have tried Live View once, but witout looking into the manual (400 pages, I have not read it) it seemed confusing. I may be wrong, and as I don’t need it, I can hardly complain. Other than that, everything was just as on the D200. Some new arrangements in the menus, some good, some bad, but after a day or two you get used to it and have forgotten that it was ever different. In any case there are no major annoyances. For anyone coming from the D200, it is simply the same tool, only of higher quality.

The software situation is not perfect, but I have everything I need. At the moment Nikon bundles Capture NX, although sadly it has become very slow. I suppose it is something with the way the software handles picture styles, in any case Capture NX 1.3 is much slower than 1.2 was. For anyone not having a D300 or a D3, I would strongly suggest skipping 1.3 and waiting for Nikon to speed it up again.

Photoshop CS3 handles the D300 perfectly, and as Camera RAW is also a part of Photoshop Elements, I suppose it will work nicely as well. If you still have not upgraded from CS2, now is the time. Adobe plays nasty and won’t support new cameras in CS2.

As regards image databases, I use IMatch, and although it crashed upon indexing a directory with D300 files, it took 24 hours until Mario Westphal supplied a workaround, and since then I had not a single problem. Speak of excellent service!

PTLens is about lenses, not cameras and therefore does not care, Photomatix Pro 2.5.3 does not crash but produces garbage when I open NEF files, but normally I use it on bracketed JPEGs, therefore I don’t really care, and although I have no D300 profiles for Noise Ninja, I normally let it auto-profile the image anyway.

This image was made yesterday in the early afternoon. I had seen the first sun in a week, and I was glad. I didn’t make any particularly interesting images, so this funny bird may suffice. The JPEG out of the camera would have been OK, but I wanted to extract as much detail as possible. You’ll hardly be able to see it at this size, but there was quite some detail left to be squeezed out. I am especially fond of the texture in the feathers.

Nikon 18-200 at 200mm, f5.6 and 1/400s at ISO 200. Post-processing in Photoshop.

The Song of the Day is the “Funnybird Song” from the 1973 Carla Bley album “Tropic Appetites“, her second cooperation with Paul Haines after “Escalator over the Hill“.