Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos


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!

Common Misconceptions: High ISO Noise

The Misconception:

Digital noise caused by a high ISO setting will ruin the image.

Why This is Wrong:
Alright here’s the deal, high ISO noise is not nearly as big a problem as people make it out to be. True, higher ISO settings result in more digital noise. No doubt about that. But it is very unlikely to ruin your shots. The final presentation size must be taken in to account when determining whether or not digital noise is something to be worried about. Sure, the maximum ISO on your camera will exhibit quite a bit of noise when you look at the image magnified 100% on the computer. But that’s not an accurate representation of the image. How often do you print that big? And even if you do print that big, how often will you view that print from just inches away like you do on your computer?

It’s tempting to judge photos at full magnification on the computer, but resist the urge. Everything looks bad that big. Don’t believe me? Take a headshot of yourself then see how you like critiquing the image at that high of a magnification (look at those pores!).

This is why when I analyze film negatives on a light table, I don’t use a 10x magnification loupe even though they do exist. I use 4x for most viewing and an 8x only if I want to really critique a negative. If the loupe magnifies the image too much, the negatives just start to look soft and grainy. And it wouldn’t be a realistic critique of the image because it’s not like I’ll be blowing up the image to those magnifications, and even if I do, people won’t view it from inches away.

High ISO Noise

Below are 100% magnification crops from the original 12-megapixel image (above)
On the left is ISO 100 on my first-generation Canon EOS 5D,
on the right is ISO 3200 (the max ISO).

The noise is, of course, noticeable in these magnified views, but how big is the image
really going to be viewed? This noise won't be noticeable except for at very large
print sizes. Plus, newer cameras will have much better high ISO performance
than my out-dated 5D.

High ISO Noise

The Truth:
Unless you print really big, high ISO noise ain’t going to ruin your shot. And if you do print big, it still won’t be as big of an issue as you think. The bigger the print, the further away you view it from. And besides, most people’s pictures end up on Facebook barely bigger than a greeting card. Noise won’t show up on an image that small. You may see it because you know it's there when it's blown up, but others won’t see it.

Yes, you should use the lowest ISO you can in any given situation just so you don’t have needless image noise, but sometimes you need an ultra-high ISO to get the shot. If you do, don’t worry about the noise. Know that it’ll be there, but don’t let it prevent you from taking the shot. Like I tell my students, “better to have the image with some noise than no image at all.”

My Thoughts and Rants:
As far as I’m concerned, high ISO noise is basically a non-issue today. Every new generation of camera is getting better and better at reducing digital noise. Today’s cameras are so good at high ISOs that it’s practically not even worth talking about. Plus, no one prints anymore (which is a tragedy in its own right). It’s all Facebook, Flickr, email, slideshows, photo books, iPhones...all great ways to share photos, but they simply don’t show the images blown up very big. So why are we even talking about noise?

And remember that no one else will ever notice the digital noise in your images. Your family, friends, clients - they won’t see it. Other photographers will, but who wants to impress them anyway? Other photographers are un-impress-able.

There are a thousand things that will ruin your photos. Digital noise is number 999. Good technique, good light, good composition, good subjects...Focus on that.