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Focus Stacking for macrophotography – easy as pie with Olympus cameras

Friday, July 14th, 2017

One of the main problems with macrophotography is inadequate depth of field – that is, not being able to get your whole subject in adequate focus.

In the macrophotography realm, it is common to only have around 1-2mm of subject depth in focus, forcing one to either use very small apertures such as f/16 (which then drops resolution due to diffraction effects, increases how annoyingly busy the background is as well as requiring much longer exposures).

Die hard macrophotographers resort to a very complex, time consuming technique to address this called focus stacking whereby they take a number of shots at slightly different focus distances and then on a computer, use special software to merge these together to give an apparent expanded depth of view.

Olympus has recently come to the rescue for those of us who are not quite as obsessive, and added a brilliant little feature to their latest cameras which does all this automatically – albeit, with some limitations, critically you can only do 8 shots, you have to use the electronic shutter, and the final merged image is a slightly cropped jpeg image – not a RAW file, so you really need to get your exposure correct, your white balance correct (DON’T USE Auto White Balance!) and your picture style correct BEFORE you shoot.

For more information on this, see Olympus focus stacking feature on my wikipedia.

It does take a little trial and error in choosing the best aperture and the step differential for a given lens and subject.

The step differential is the distance the camera will adjust the lens focus between each shot, and Olympus allow you to choose a number between 1 and 9, but they incorporate a complex algorithm to determine how much 1 step equates to depending upon the aperture and focus distance chosen – in practice it seems that 1 step is approximately 1/3rd of the depth of field, and thus for most subjects you probably are best to use a setting of 3-5.

All of the following were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens (jpegs straight from camera just re-sized for web), and whilst not true 1:1 macros, they are good examples of what most people might try outdoors:

Here is a single shot straight from camera to show that you can often get away without focus stacking by using a small aperture, but the cost is a very busy background – this is a small 2cm toadstool attached to the side of a eucalypt tree in a dark forest shot at f/16 with an 8 sec exposure at ISO 200:


Here is the same shot taken with automatic in camera focus stacking, 8 images, f/4 at 0.5 sec at ISO 200 – note it is slightly cropped, but the background is now a lovely soft blur while the mushrooms are still adequately in focus – just amazing that the camera’s algorithms can create such an image!


Here is a closer shot of same subject at f/6.3, 0.6sec, ISO 200 with 8 image focus stacking:


Another example of some tiny mushrooms on a tree stump taken with focus stacking – without focus stacking I could only get 1 or 2 of these in focus even using a small aperture, and even with 8 image focus stacking I needed to resort to f/11, 2 sec exposures at ISO 200 to get as much as this in focus. These were only about 8mm height for the tallest one:


One more example, of a larger group of mushrooms which had a dead mosquito stuck to the surface and a couple of minute mite-like insects nearby – this was taken with the 8 image focus stacking at f/8, 0.5 sec at ISO 200 and the image has been cropped into portrait aspect (it was getting late and dark and I couldn’t be bothered adjusting the camera into portrait on the tripod and re-composing).


Not all shots will work for you, and you do need to avoid camera shake when triggering the exposure – unfortunately, it seems you cannot set a self timer delay in this mode, and you must remember to focus on the CLOSEST part you want in focus – the bracketing is a bit of a misnomer here as it doesn’t bracket either side of your focus point.

In addition, you need to use a tripod, and a lens which is compatible with this mode, and remember to reset your manual focus after each shot.

The native live view of mirrorless cameras, ability to get accurate manual focus with magnified view, and the ergonomics of the flip out screen makes this kind of photography far more enjoyable than with a clunky dSLR. It would be nice if the Olympus smartphone app allowed focus stacking in remote control as this would allow a total no touch technique and less camera shake, but alas it doesn’t as yet.

You will be surprised at how useful this is.

Of course, if you want the BEST image quality you should use focus bracketing mode without in-camera focus stacking to give you a self timer and lots more images to play with -  this will allow you may to use a smaller step differential of 1-2 and MANY images – perhaps a hundred! Then you can load them up in your favorite focus stacking software and hopefully get less artefacts.

New 2.5x macro lens from Olympus – the Olympus mZD 30mm f/3.5 macro

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

In addition to the brilliant new OM-D E-M1 mark II and the 2 new PRO level lenses announced at Photokina this week, Olympus also announced a new “PREMIUM” level but affordable macro lens for Micro Four Thirds which is a world 1st being able to shoot as low as 2.5x macro (in 35mm full frame terms) and still be able to shoot subjects at infinity with fast AF.

The lens is very light and compact at only 128 g (4.5oz) and 57mm long (2.24″) and having a small 46mm filter thread.

It thus is also well suited to underwater work and for this it is compatible with certain Olympus housings  and lens ports (PT-EP13 (E-M5 Mark II), PT-EP10 (for the E-PL6/E-PL5), PT-EP11 (for the E-M1)) as well as having a couple of its own dedicated underwater accessories – PPZR-EP07 focus gear, Antireflective Ring POSR-EP11.

AF is said to be 20-30% faster than its previous Olympus macro lens, the weathersealed Olympus mZD 60mm macro lens,  and is designated MSC – silent and smooth AF and aperture for movies.

The close focus is down to 9.5cm with a working distance of 14mm in front of the lens giving a field of 13.9 x 10.9mm which is able to reveal subjects the unaided eye cannot see.

It has 7 circular blades for nice out of focus rendering when stopped down.

It appears that it is not weathersealed but users will mainly use this for controlled environments indoors out of the wind, or in an underwater housing.

RRP is $US299.

PPZR-EP07 Underwater focus gear

Underwater Antireflective Ring POSR-EP11

As reviews are posted I will link them on my wiki page for this lens.

A photographer’s guide to exploring central Australia – Part III – the West Macdonnell Ranges and their gorges

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Following on from my introduction to the Red Centre which covered why go, getting there, accommodation and car hire issues, and my post on Alice Springs, the indigenous peoples, road trauma and climbing Mt Gillen, it is now turn to highlight the quick tourist’s view of the West Macdonnell Ranges or Tjoritja (I did not get time to see the East Macdonnell Ranges on this trip … maybe another time).

You can explore these ranges by hiring a car (preferably a 4WD to better negotiate a few kilometres of gravel roads to some of the gorges), or you can go via a tour bus.

An excellent option which I took was to stay overnight at the Glen Helen Resort which is at almost the far west end of the ranges some 132km from Alice Springs on bitumen road, or, if you have a caravan or tent then overnight at one of the gorges is usually possible.

Many of these gorges have permanent waterholes but they are very cold, so swimming would be more a summer pursuit!

For the adventurous, the Larapinta Trail is a world-renown bush walk trail covering some 223km of one way walk in 14 day trip sections of very exposed walks – mostly along the ridges of the ranges.

the ranges

The history of this mountain range is fascinating:

850-800 million years ago, most of the southern half of the Northern Territory  was inundated by a shallow sea resulting in quartz-rich deposits and these formed the now red “Heavitree quartzite rock” layer which is so evident in the cliffs today.

800-760 million years ago, the sea became shallower still, forming tidal lagoons which deposited lime-rich mud which hardened to form greyish dolomite, a type of limestone rich in magnesium. Silt was also deposited and this became siltstone. This layer is called the Bitter Springs Formation, and occurred at a time when stromatolites (blue-green algae) dominated the life forms on earth. Stromatolites were the main life form on earth for 2000 million years, and being the 1st photosynthetic bacteria, eventually oxygenated the atmosphere and the seas (the Great Oxygenation Event which started some 2400 mya) which allowed current life forms to evolve and also oxidised the minerals in the seas such as iron resulting in massive deposits of red sandstone high in iron oxide such as in the Pilbara – see my post on Broome.

760-620 million years ago, the build up of oxygen and falling methane and carbon dioxide levels resulted in a reverse greenhouse effect, and earth became a giant snowball covered in ice. Global volcanic activity reversed this process, thawing the world and the melting glaciers from two ice ages (750mya and 625mya), deposited eroded materials to form new rocks, pebbles and boulders, these formed the Areyonga Formation and then the Pioneer Sandstone layer. As an aside, around 630mya, the thawing set the stage for a new evolution of life forms – the Ediacaran fauna (named after the Ediacara Hills of nearby South Australia).

620-600 million years ago, the sea returned but was deeper, resulting in fine grained sediments which formed the Pertatataka Formation consisting of red-brown flaky shales. This was the age of jellyfish.

The combined thickness of the above layers amounted to ~ 2 kilometres.

Between 340 million and 310 million years ago, massive earth movements pushed up these layers of quartzite and the many other sedimentary layers on top of this (from top-down: Juile formation, Pertatataka formation, Pioneer sandstone, Areyonga formation, Bitter Springs formation)  to form a mountain chain 10,000m high – the ancestral ranges were as high as today’s Himalayas!

Constant weathering by wind, flowing water, ice formation, etc over 315 million years has eroded all the softer top layers, leaving the current ranges mainly formed by the hard quartzite layer.

Indeed, a feature of the region are the many vertically oriented layers of red quartzite rock running parallel with the main road and somewhat resembling a natural form of the Great Wall of China.

Each of the above layers are evident on the ground surface as you drive back from the Ellery Creek Big Hole – at the waterhole, the cliffs are the quartzite layer, and then as you drive back to Namatjira Drive, the northern border is the Pertatataka Formation – so you sequentially drive across 250 million years of geologic history in those few kilometres.

The red quartzite cliffs at Ormiston Gorge actually consists of 2 layers of quartzite with the top layer having been pushed over the bottom layer from a distance of some 2 kilometres!


The first two sites are quite close to Alice Springs and could be skipped and done another day if staying in Alice – Simpson’s Gap (can even ride a bike here) and Standley Chasm.

Simpson’s Gap:

This is a favourite location for the locals to escape the summer heat as it is said to always have a lovely breeze through the gap – certainly on a cool winter’s morning, there was a substantial chill factor here warranting use of gloves and a spare camera battery!

Here is a shot of the lovely river red gums on the creek bed.

Simpsons Gap

Standley Chasm:

The only one of the sights on this trip which is on private land and requires an entry fee – best seen at midday when the sun lights up the chasm, and it has a nice cafe and souvenir shop.

The walk to the chasm is very pleasant and quite different from the other gorge walks as you follow a narrow rocky creek up a gorge.

Standley Chasm

We were there too early in the day and thus the gorge itself was fully in shade but there was a lovely orange glow on the cliffs behind the gorge.

Standley Chasm

Vertical quartzite layers and other types of rock on the walking path to the chasm:

Standley Chasm


Ellery Creek Big Hole:

A very nice waterhole surrounded by lovely gum trees:

Ellery Creek

Serpentine Gorge:

If you are short on time, you could skip this one and do Ormiston Gorge instead, but it is a nice little walk to a small waterhole with beautiful ghost gums at the base of a narrow gorge:

Serpentine Gorge

Serpentine Gorge

Ormiston Gorge:

This is the jewel in the crown of the West Macdonnell ranges for me.

There is the longer Pound Walk loop which takes “3-4hrs”, but we did not have time for this one on this trip. There is also a 1-2 day return walk to Bowman’s Gap along the river bed.

Make sure you do the full Ghost Gum circuit which will take 1.5-3 hours depending on how many photos you take – the walk does go up about 70-100m but there are good paths and steps. It takes you to a beautiful ghost gum on the top of a cliff where there is a lookout down to the river bed below and across the awesome red gorge cliffs:

Ormiston Gorge

View from the lookout:

Ormiston Gorge

One then descends down into the gorge where there are a myriad of photographic opportunities of rock forms, red cliffs with spindly little white ghost gums clinging to them:

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge

Once on the riverbed, walking is more a task of clambering over the thousands of boulders as you make your way back to the sandy river bed:

Ormiston Gorge

On return, there is a lovely large waterhole at the base of the red cliffs with a few water birds such as egrets and more lovely gum trees:

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge

Finally, the path back to the car park and kiosk takes you past these two beautiful ghost gums:

Ormiston Gorge

Glen Helen Resort:

Glen Helen Resort is the only motel style accommodation within the ranges and it has a very nice restaurant with a great chef – but you will need to book in advance!

The rooms are modest with a double bed and bunk beds but are all that most would need for an overnight stay.

The Glen Helen Gorge itself, Finke River and waterhole are quite difficult to photograph well and you do need to have complimentary lighting such as a nice sunrise, although there are opportunities to photograph the bird life around the water hole.

Redbank Gorge:

This is the last gorge, but one that is well worth seeing. There is a nice walk along the dry river bed to a waterhole at the base of a very narrow and rocky gorge, and if you get the light right and your exposures, it can be magic.

First the walk takes you past some more lovely ghost gums:

Redbank Gorge

Redbank Gorge

Then along the river bed with its many river red gums, and finally to the gorge and waterhole:

Redbank Gorge

Tyler’s Pass and Gosse’s Bluff meteor crater:

One can continue on from Redbank and head towards the unsealed gravel Mereneenie Loop Road (some 48km on this rough road to Hermannsburg to complete a loop back to Alice, or one can continue another 150km or so to King’s Canyon), and in doing so, can stop at Tyler’s Pass Lookout to take in views of the massive meteor crate which is known as Gosse’s Bluff (one can drive into it but that is another unsealed road and needs extra time allowed for it).

Gosse’s Bluff or Tnorala, is an eroded meteor crater which impacted some 142 million years ago, very close to the Jurassic – Cretaceous boundary. Originally the rim was ~22km diameter but now has eroded to 5km diameter as a 180m high crater-like feature

Tylers Pass

The junction with the Mereneenie Loop Road – The Red Centre Way in the middle of no where:

The Red Centre Way

All images were shot using Micro Four Thirds cameras – the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and E-M1 combined with Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens with Vivid picture mode and polarising filter. The exceptions were the shots at Simpson’s Gap and Standley Chasm which were shot with the Olympus ZD 7-14mm f/4 lens.

Killing time in the botanic gardens with the Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

What do you do when you have an hour or so to kill and you are in the CBD of a city such as Sydney?

Head for the botanic gardens for a relaxing walk and see what you can find.

As long as it is not windy, you can use the time to search for subjects for your macro lens – be warned, even the slightest movement of a plant will make your subject blurred unless you use a flash.

It was a very overcast day in low light so I was thankful I had the Olympus OM-D E-M5 with its 5-axis image stabiliser to help out with this hand held shot without flash in very low light using the lovely, light and very sharp Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens:

Australian native long legged fly

This dainty little metallic blue and green Australian fly is the long legged fly (Austrosciapus connexus) – which is mainly found along the east coast of Australia, Adelaide and Perth but not in southern Victoria or Tasmania.

And here are a few cacti that caught my attention:

cactus flower



And a water lily using the awesome Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens at f/1.8:

water lily

This macro lens is fantastic, not only because it is incredibly sharp, and it has focus range limiters for faster AF which, by the way is very fast, and it is image stabilised in 5 axes by the E-M5, but it is so light and small you don’t even notice you are carrying it in your bag, and your hands don’t start shaking from its weight as you try to hold it steady for the shots.

Rainforest bushwalk with the new Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Olympus released the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro lens for Micro Four Thirds cameras in the middle of this year and I am now a proud owner of said lens.

I took it for a test drive on a few 4 hour rainforest bushwalks in our lovely Otway Ranges. I decided to leave my tripod and ring flash home so I could hike with a lighter pack – after all that is one of the enormous benefits of Micro Four Thirds – lighter, smaller cameras and lenses, reduced need for tripods as you can hand hold the Olympus 12mm lens down to about 1/3rd of a second to get those flowing water shots, and if you do want to bring a tripod, you can get away with a smaller, lighter tripod and tripod head.

These have had minimal post-processing in Lightroom with some vignetting added and some tonal adjustments done.

This lens has lovely bokeh!

Carnivorous native rainforest wild flower, Stylidium graminifolium:

carnivorous wildflower

Romance in the rainforest:


I spotted this tiny 3mm subject on a rock and thought it may be a rare type of carnivorous Otway snail … but on closer inspection it was just some hardened sap droplet which had fallen from the trees, but nevertheless, a worthy subject:

carnivorous snail or..

The Australian native bull ants are quite large ants measuring up to 2cm or so long, and have a painful bite which can be fatal if you happen to be allergic to it. This one was foraging in the dark recesses of the forest floor and was about 1cm long and normally very hard to focus whilst moving but the 60mm macro did a great job after a few tries of me getting used to how it worked:

bull ant

Lastly, a native Pelargonium wildflower:


The many formal lens tests show that this lens is at least as sharp and optically excellent as is the brilliant Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens, but this lens is lighter, has closer macro capabilities of 1:1 macro, faster, more silent AF, and importantly has autofocus limiters and a switch to take you to 1:1 focus point.

For hand held work at close macro distances near 1:1, even using the fantastic Olympus E-M5 with its 5-stop 5 axis image stabiliser, the high magnification requires shutter speeds faster than 1/125th second for reliable shooting.

Now I am just waiting on the Olympus Ring Flash adapter, and hopefully Olympus will develop a new macro flash system which is smaller, lighter, and be a master for controlling the remote TTL flashes – a major deficiency with the current macro flash system.

More photos on my Flickr account using this lovely lens can be seen here.

Refractive droplet macrophotography with the Olympus E-M5 – a clock inside a drop

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

One of the local hospitals asked me if I could create an image that relates intravenous cannulae with time so they could use in a campaign to reduce complication rates.

Here are a couple of my first cut ideas without any Photoshopping other than some cropping and resize for web.

In other words, they are essentially straight out of the camera – no tricks.

The idea shown on this post is to create an image of a clock visible within a tiny droplet coming from an iv cannula.

You will need to click on these images to get the larger view.

antique clock in a drop

Droplets refract light and will thus “contain” an image of a lit object some 30cm behind the drop (albeit an upside down one).

In the image above, I chose an antique clock as I wanted the gold and orange tones to complement the blue of the cannula, but as the clock was so detailed, I ended up having to crop it more than I would like to make it obvious it was indeed a clock inside the drop.

Realising this difficulty, I decided to try again with a simpler designed, rather plain clock that anyone would recognise even in a small image, hence the following photo:

plain clock in a drop

Equipment used:

Olympus E-M5 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro on a tripod:

  • allows 9fps manual focus burst rates to catch the split second of the drop about to fall
  • allowed live view magnified image to constantly allow me to adjust the manual focus to deal with the changing droplet size and placement of the clock image
  • the Olympus macro lens is recognised to be one of the sharpest lenses ever made
  • ISO 200 for maximum image quality
  • shutter speed at flash sync 1/200th sec to reduce effects of ambient light
  • aperture f/8-11 to give reasonable depth of field but still allow the background image of the clock to be adequately blurred
  • manual focus – I would rarely if ever use autofocus for such close up photography!
  • manual exposure of course
  • IS = off as camera on tripod
  • no need to constantly set mirror up unlike with dSLRs as there is no mirror


  • off-camera flash set to 1/32nd – 1/64th output to allow rapid sequential shooting
  • any flash could have been used for this purpose as long as it can be set to manual and a small output
  • I actually used a Canon 580EXII flash mounted on a Pocket Wizard FlexTT5 radio controller which was controlled by a PocketWizard MiniTT1 mounted on the camera hot shoe with both being programmed to basic non-TTL mode.
  • you could use any cheap Chinese flash controller for this, or use a off-camera cable (Canon or Olympus) attached to your flash, or you could potentially use an on-camera flash such as the Olympus FL-50(R) and bounce it off a nearby white object.

Then it is trial and error:

  • adjusting exposure – ISO vs flash output setting (one does not wish to change aperture as this is dictating how the image will look)
  • getting the distance from droplet to background image right (to get the correct size image in the droplet)
  • getting the camera to droplet distance set for the composition and ensuring that when you use DOF preview, your background view of the actual clock will not look too distracting.
  • timing your shots for the droplet

More information of photographing droplets can be seen on my photo wiki.

A quick close up portrait of a beautiful iridescent green-blue stag beetle using the Panasonic GH-1

Monday, January 16th, 2012

I found this lovely beetle whilst going for a jog in a Eucalypt woodland near Melbourne and he obligingly sat on my hand for the long walk back to my car.

He wouldn’t let go of my camera bag and as I only had a couple of minutes to get a photo, here is what I had to come up with – apologies it wasn’t in its native environment. My wife let him go while I was out so I didn’t get another chance for a shot.

Nevertheless, all my trawling on the net and I haven’t been able to find one with the same blue on green colors.

I believe it belongs to the Lamprima spp. of the Lucanidae family and I guess it is a close relative of the Golden Green Stag Beetle.

Note the large mandibles.
stag beetle

Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens and Canon ring flash at f/16.

The ring flash was hand held away from the lens.

Some vignette added in Lightroom.

A rose on the first day of Spring – Panasonic GH-1 + Olympus ZD 50mm macro lens + Canon ring flash

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

On the first day of spring here in Melbourne, Australia, one of my David Austin roses was just starting to bloom, so what a good excuse to get my gear out.

As you can see, I am not really a fan boy – I use whatever equipment I have that will do the job, in this case, a Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens and a Canon Ring Flash in manual exposure mode at ISO 100, f/14, flash output at its lowest (1/64th).

Although the rose was a gorgeous apricot color with pink tinges, I decided I would prefer to concentrate on the delicious tonings, curves and edges, and only conversion to black and white would achieve this.

Minimal post-processing otherwise.


Photographing Australia’s alpine snow regions – a few essential tips for photographers

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Alpine snow regions in Australia are confined to the south-east and have a relatively short season from June-September.

Snow mainly falls down to altitudes of 1400m, but on the uncommon days of very cold Antarctic blasts, snow may fall to as low as 900m.

During the snow skiing season, photographers have limited access to these regions as snow ploughs clear the road and heap snow on the sides of the roads preventing ability to park your vehicle other than at designated areas – not very helpful for photographers!

Most of Victoria’s snow fields are within 2-4 hours drive of Melbourne, but those with 2WD vehicles will need to use snow chains once they reach the snow, while those with 4WD vehicles will need to carry snow chains.

Treacherous cold beauty of winter on Mt Buffalo. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/80th sec, 13mm focal length, uncropped, minimal post-processing:
Treacherous cold beauty of Mt Buffalo


Planking on a cliff face photographing a waterfall with care. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens, ISO 200, f/2.0, 1/500th sec, uncropped, contrast enhanced in post-processing:
Planking on Mt Buffalo

Be safe:

  • most Australians are occasional visitors to the snow and thus lack of experience can be a major issue – the snow regions do create significant risks, not only of vehicle accidents on black ice, but personal accidents due to slipping on ice which could easily result in a broken limb or serious head injury from a simple fall onto the boulders. Furthermore, it does not take much to get cold, wet, hungry and even lost.
  • tip #1 – if possible take an experienced person along with you, if you are a keen photographer, consider hiring the services of local professional photographer and alpine hiker such as John Mitchell – I can highly recommend him – not only will he pick you up and drop you back to your accommodation, but he will supply lunch, drinks and watch for your safety as he takes you to great locations which you would otherwise not consider, and help you with your photographic skills one on one.
  • tip #2 – be prepared and keep yourself warm and dry:
    • very waterproof leather boots (apply Dubbin or a bees wax product to them before going)
    • wear 2 pairs of merino wool socks
    • layers of clothes with an outer waterproof layer over your pants (you do need to get down on your knees to get good shots sometimes) and of course, a waterproof jacket
    • consider waterproof gaiters which attach to boot lace and and can be laced under the boot to ensure a snug fit to minimise snow getting up your trousers.
    • several pairs of light weight gloves designed for operating your cameras – once a pair gets wet with rain, you need to change to dry pair – if your fingers get very cold, that is the end of your photography for the day – prevention is better than cure!
    • beanie or similar for your head
    • use lip balm to prevent chaffed lips and subsequent cold sores
    • if sunny, wear wrap around UV sunglasses to prevent UV burns to your eyes from reflected sunlight from the snow
  • tip #3 – don’t slip and fall over, or get lost:
    • walk with knees bent to keep your centre of gravity low and help ensure you fall forwards instead of slipping backwards and giving yourself a signficant head injury.
    • avoid walking on ice – stick to the snow
    • cloud and snow can hide crevices and cliffs – keep to the paths and don’t wander off alone as one can get disoriented very easily, and your iPhone GPS is not going to be much help
    • consider bringing a radio beacon in case you do get lost (which you won’t be silly enough to do), or to call for help if your vehicle or yourself becomes incapacitated.
  • tip #4 – don’t carry too much gear:
    • try to anticipate what you will need
    • if it is thick cloud on the mountain, bring a wide angle lens – you almost certainly will NOT need a lens with focal length greater than 100mm in 35mm terms – you will not be able to see much more than 20m in front of you anyway and a telephoto is not likely to find much use in those conditions. Likewise, a large sensor camera to get the shallowest depth of field and lovely bokeh is not going to be so important, so consider making life easy for yourself by taking a smaller camera with a wide angle lens and perhaps a macro lens.
    • you should consider a nice light weight carbon fibre tripod if you are wanting to photograph waterfalls or streams with long exposures (consider bringing a polariser or ND filter to help here)
    • do bring that lens hood – not only will it help to reduce flare, but more importantly, it will help prevent rain hitting the front element of your lens, and we definitely do NOT want that happening, even if you do have a filter on!
    • if you have an assistant, a towel to shelter under (not wipe your glass!), or even better if it is raining but not windy, an umbrella to help protect rain from hitting the front element of your lens.
A Panda bear on Mt Buffalo? Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens, ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/125th sec, uncropped, contrast enhanced in post-processing:
Panda bear on Mt Buffalo

How to take great photos in the snow when it is covered by cloud:

  • tip #1 – make sure your batteries are freshly charged and bring a spare
    • lithium ion batteries are not as susceptible to the cold but it is wise to optimise the battery life in the snow
    • consider keeping them warm when not in use (eg. in your pocket)
    • avoid excessive battery usage – minimise LCD use. minimise AF use, turn camera off when not in use
  • tip #2 – keep your camera gear dry
    • if it is raining, your camera is going to get wet
    • most camera bags have a rain protective cover – use it
    • if you have a pro camera and lens, this moisture is not an issue for the electronics or internal glass elements as these are usually sufficiently weatherproofed
    • if not, allowing your camera to get wet is risking it suddenly stopping working – my Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera did get quite wet but luckily functioned flawlessly for me apart from the usual “Lens not connected properly” error message I get when using an adapter for lenses and they are not tightly connected.
  • tip #3 – keep front element of your lens dry
    • water droplets on the front element will mean NONE of your photos will be usable!
    • use your lens hood
    • keep lens facing down as much as possible
    • have an assistant provide shelter for the lens
    • droplets on your lens as well as dust on your sensor become more obvious in your images at smaller apertures (eg. f/8-16) and these small apertures are often needed in landscape photography to give adequate depth of field, or allow for long exposures if you forgot your ND filter.
  • tip #4 – avoid condensation on your camera and lens
    • fog on your front element will seriously degrade your image quality and wiping the fog off should be avoided – let it evaporate
    • fog in your viewfinder will make it hard to use
    • if you bring your cold camera into a warm, humid environment such as under your jacket or indoors (eg. in a warm car), you will get condensation forming which not only will cause issues by fogging the front elent and your viewfinder, but can risk moisture getting inside your electronics.
    • even placing your camera with lens down into your external jacket pocket will result in lens condensation – keep it away from any warmth!
    • consider placing camera inside a sealed plastic bag until it warms up, or keep it in a cold bag to keep it cold if you plan on using it outside again (but consider removing the battery to keep it warm).
  • tip #5 – set camera to RAW mode
    • low contrast scenes in cloud with snow mandates sugnificant post-processing to adjust contrast – give your photos the best chance by using RAW files instead of only 8 bit jpegs
    • snow scenes are difficult for automatic white balance so RAW mode makes adjusting this in post-processing much easier
  • tip #6 – use custom white balance
    • AWB on your camera is not likely to give the best results
    • do a custom white balance preferably off a gray card, but you might be able to use gray clothing
  • tip #7 – use manual exposure
    • camera light meters are not good enough to get reliable exposures of snow scenes as they will be trying to make all your nice white snow look 18% gray
    • so set your exposure mode to manual and determine the settings yourself
    • the best option is to use a hand held incident light meter
    • alternatively, one can use the histogram to ensure highlights are not being blown out
    • if you must meter with the camera, then try to find something which is 18% gray such as a boulder or a jacket
    • if in doubt, bracket your exposures by +/- 0.5 – 1.0 stops
  • tip #8 – avoid deleting images in the field
    • you never know what can be retrieved by adjusting contrast, etc in Lightroom or Photoshop
    • avoid judging an image based on the appearance on the camera’s LCD screen
  • tip #9 – look for color contrast to add punch
    • snow scenes tend to be largely gray scale affairs with low contrast
    • look for brightly colored subjects to add color contrast – consider using an ultra wide angle lens to get in close
  • tip #10 – images still look crap when you get home?
    • as long as you have got your exposure reasonably close and your composition is good, don’t despair as most snow scenes in cloud need some post-processing to add contrast and alter tone curves to give you the ambience you want
    • consider converting to monotone given they are largely monotone anyway
Anyone for a nippy dip? The swimming pool at the deserted chalet. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/80th sec, 14mm focal length, uncropped:
swimming pool
When you get too cold and wet, time to move down the mountain out of the cloud for relative warmth and different scenery. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens, ISO 100, f/8, 0.8 sec, polarising filter, uncropped, minor enhancement in post-processing:
Eurobin falls
Time to get the macro lens and tripod out at the top of a waterfall. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens ISO 400, f/16, 0.62 sec,uncropped, no post-processing:
Who can resist the ambience of a mountain stream. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens, ISO 100, f/16, 2.0 sec, polarising filter, uncropped, minor enhancement in post-processing:
Ice on the rocks with the Canon. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens, ISO 200, f/4, 1/125th sec, uncropped, major contrast enhancement in post-processing:
snow on the rocks
Fallen tree. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/60th sec, 8mm focal length, uncropped:
fallen tree
Patterns in nature. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/60th sec, 14mm focal length, uncropped:

What have you learned from the above images?

1. you don’t need ISO above ISO 400 so any modern cropped sensor camera will handle this scenery well – don’t get yourself worried about all those camera tests comparing ISO at 12,800 – high ISO shooting is really only needed for certain niche photographers. The landscape photographer, like most photographers, generally shoot at low ISO and preferably with a tripod.

2. the limiting factor is not the camera or lens, but YOUR ability to adjust the camera’s settings effectively and to ensure the lens glass remains clear.

3. don’t forget your tripod and polarising filter for those waterfall shots.

4. in the cloud, an ultra wide angle lens comes into its own while a telephoto has limited utility, but try to avoid getting too much brighter cloud in your image, as viewer’s eyes tend to go to bright areas, and this cloud will have little detail to warrant the viewer’s attention, and thus generally will detract from the image.

5. with more endeavour and time, a number of different imagery styles could be derived from the initial base images, and these could be further “enhanced” because the initial exposures generally included the full dynamic range that was important with minimal if any blown highlights. Note I have intentionally under-exposed a couple of the above for effect.

As an aside, I am really looking forward to a weather-proof Olympus Pen Pro with built-in EVF and image stabiliser to use with the very nice new Olympus 12mm f/2.0 lens, so please Mr Olympus, bring it on!

Suspended water droplets using the Olympus ZD 50mm macro on a Panasonic GH-1

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011