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Photography Tips: Manual Photography & The Munker-White Illusion

Skill Level: Professional


"Can You Trust Your Eyes" by ASAP Science
Check out their post here.

The good folks at ASAP Science posted an interesting video titled "Can You Trust Your Eyes?" In it, the narrator demonstrates how colors and tones will appear lighter or darker depending on what tone they're next to. As the video so eloquently illustrated, this phenomena - known as the Munker White illusion - can make tones that are actually the same brightness appear to be vastly different.

Photography Tips: Manual Photography and the Munker-White IllusionThe "A" column appears darker than the "B" column,
but in actuality, they are the same tone.

I teach a process for shooting in manual mode that depends heavily on the shooter's ability to analyze tones (covered in my How to Shoot in Full Manual online course here). So this video got me thinking about how we are basically doomed to make metering errors in our photography purely by nature of this illusion. No matter how experienced one may be in the manual metering process I teach or the somewhat similar Zone System by the great Ansel Adams, you will never escape this inherent failure of our eyes to accurately analyze tones.

Understanding this effect may not be vital information for the manual shooter, but it certainly couldn't hurt. For instance, let's say I'm spot metering off of a section of granite rock on a sunlit mountain side. And let's say the spot I'm choosing to meter off of is immediately adjacent to a dark patch of trees. In this situation I may analyze the tone of that granite to be about a +2/3 on my meter - in other words, I think that granite is just a shade lighter than middle tone. So I point my meter up to the mountain, line my meter up at +2/3, then recompose and take my photo. Everything comes out great.

But what if this spot was immediately adjacent to something light rather than that dark patch of trees? What if instead of the dark trees, there's a big swath of bright white snow next to it? According to this Munker-White illusion, I'll perceive my metered area as a different tone. When it's next to the trees, I perceive it as a shade lighter than middle tone (+2/3), but when it's next to the snow, I might perceive it as a shade darker than middle tone (maybe -2/3 or so). Of course, the rock hasn't changed its tone, it's purely my perception of the tone dependent on what tone it's next to.

Simply depending on what tone it's next to, I'll perceive my metered area differently and, thus, get a different exposure.

So this information may not fall in to the category of "photography tips" for everybody, but if you're an adroit user of your camera's light meter, you may want to be aware of this illusion. Try to block out the tones around your chosen spot meter area to avoid the trickery of this illusion. Here's one way to do it: just form your hand into a circle (like you're holding a pipe) then look through it like a telescope pointed at your chosen metering area. This will block out the surrounding tones and allow you to analyze the tonality of the subject untainted by the Munker-White illusion. Or if you don't want to look ridiculous, just spot meter off of tones that cover sufficient area to fill your viewfinder.

Photography Tips: Fixing Blurry Pictures

Skill Level: Beginner

Blurry pictures are one of the most common reasons a student will contact me for private lessons or an online photography course. It’s a problem as old as photography and still continues today despite all the technological advances with digital. Fixing blurry pictures involves changing the way you shoot, not getting new equipment or hoping Photoshop will undo the blur (it won’t). 

Often times a shooter will attribute their soft photos to their “crappy kit lens” or their entry-level camera. If only they had sharper glass and a better auto focus system, then blurry pictures would be a thing of the past. And with all the bloated lens reviews on the net comparing side-by-side images and MTF charts, it’s no wonder people assume lens sharpness is a big issue.

Well, it’s not. I can almost guarantee that your blurry photos are not blurry because of your lens. I have tons of students come to me with blurry photos and almost every single time, the blur is not due to a soft lens or bad focus.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

This photo is blurry (as can be seen in the 100% crop below)
but the culprit is not a bad lens or poor focus.
It's blurry because the shutter speed was too slow.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

When it comes to fixing blurry pictures, we first must establish that there are 2 basic types of blur in photography: out-of-focus blur and motion blur (let’s not get in to diffraction). Out-of-focus blur can be intentional and pleasing, like a blurry background in a portrait. Out-of-focus blur can also be unintentional and can ruin a shot. That would be like when the camera focuses on the wrong thing and so your subject goes out of focus.

Motion blur, on the other hand, comes from subject movement or camera shake during the exposure. And whether or not this results in blur is dependent on what shutter speed you use. You’ll get less motion blur with fast shutter speeds and more motion blur with slow shutter speeds.

In my thousands of hours of experience working with aspiring photographers, I can confidently say the number one reason for blurry photos is from camera shake at shutter speeds that are too slow. This is why blurry photos are especially common in low light scenarios, like indoors. The camera needs a slow shutter speed in low-light environments in order to create a correct exposure. Sometimes that’s the only way the camera can get enough light. But this slow shutter speed makes it nearly impossible to freeze camera shake and subject movement.

So the key to fixing blurry pictures caused by motion is to use a faster shutter speed. And how does one get a faster shutter speed? Well, it isn’t as simple as switching over to shutter priority mode and dialing in a faster shutter. You can’t take away light with a faster shutter speed unless you give the camera more light from the aperture or ISO.

To get your faster shutter speed, you must raise the ISO and/or open up the aperture. It’s that simple. Anytime the shutter speed is too slow, just raise the ISO or open the aperture and you’ll get a faster shutter. You may have to do this a few times. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

With a wider aperture and higher ISO,
my camera was able to use a faster shutter speed, 
resulting in a much sharper photo. 

Fixing Blurry Pictures

Now it may happen sometimes where you raise the ISO to its limit and you open the aperture all the way, and the shutter is still too slow. Now what? Well that’s why God gave us flash. Alternatively, you could get a new camera with a higher maximum ISO or a lens with a wider maximum aperture, but let’s not run out and drop a few grand on new gear just yet.

The bottom line is you need to know shutter speed, aperture, and ISO like the back of your hand. If you know those things well, you’ll be in complete control of motion blur and out-of-focus blur. That’s why I devote over half of my Introduction to DSLR Photography online course to shutter, aperture, and ISO. You really can’t know these things too well.

So next time you’re faced with blurry photos in low light, try raising the ISO and/or opening the aperture. Oh, and you sure as hell can’t be in full auto mode for this one!

Photography Tips: Bug’s View

Skill Level: Intermediate

I think flowers are probably one of the most photographed subjects on this planet. They're beautiful, they're interesting, they're colorful and, most importantly, they are cooperative - they never get bored of posing and they never complain that you made them look fat.

But because these beautiful plants are so often photographed, it can be really difficult to get an original shot. Most flower photos end up looking about the same when you really break them down. That's why when I go to shoot flowers, I try to do everything but my first approach. Whatever my first inclination is in framing, composition or angle, I try to do something else. That's what led me to today's tip.

Next time you're out shooting some flowers, leave your macro lens in the bag and strap on your wide angle. With a wide angle lens and a really low point of view, you can get this really great effect of looking up towards the sky from beneath the flowers that makes you feel as if you are viewing the world through a bug's eye. Here's an example demonstrating this technique:

Not your average flower shot, eh?

It's quite simple to get this effect, but there are a few things you need to pay attention to in order to get the best shots possible. First off, as I mentioned, put on your wide angle lens. This gives that distorted, wide view that really makes the final viewer feel like they are in the picture.

Next, you have to make sure your exposure is going to come out right. You'll be shooting up into backlit flowers with the bright sky behind it. This lighting scenario is going to trick your camera into making the picture too dark if you don't do something about it. If you know how to manually meter, just lock in your exposure before you start snapping away and you'll be good to go. If you're going to shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Program, push the exposure compensation up to something like +1.3 to +2.0 in order to make the picture brighter. Take a couple test shots to nail down the right compensation value.

Your camera's autofocus system is going to drive you nuts in this scenario. The AF can't focus on clear blue sky and it doesn't do well with backlighting, so chances are it's just going to be searching for focus nonstop and really slowing you down. So, just switch it to manual focus and pre-focus to the closest possible distance.

You'll want a pretty decent depth of field, but your wide angle lens has a big DOF as it is, so I'd recommend shooting somewhere around f/8-f/16.

Lastly is composition and how to actually take the shot. You're going to need such a low point of view that your camera will literally need to be on the ground. This won't allow you any room to look through the viewfinder, so you'll have to use the "shoot and pray" technique. Basically you will hold your camera down into the flowers, pointing upwards toward some flowers you think will make a good composition, and then just fire away. You won't see what your camera is seeing, so you'll just have to sort of guess what it's looking at and "pray" you got a good angle on it. Change your camera angle slightly between shots to cover a wider range and snap 5-10 pictures, then review on your screen to see how you're doing. After that, try an entirely new angle and composition and repeat. Shoot until you're sick of it or until the light's gone - whatever comes first.

Depending on how wide angle your lens is, you may find yourself getting some accidental self-portraits. Try to stretch away from your camera as best you can to avoid getting in the shot while you have it pushed down into the flowers.

This technique can be a little trickier than it sounds, but if you keep all the above tips in mind (especially on the exposure and auto focus), you'll do fine. It can be addictive, so go nuts! Now go out and get some new points of view on those flowers!