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Common Misconceptions: You Don’t Need Filters for Digital Photography

The Misconception:
Photoshop (and other image editing programs) have replaced traditional filters. I can do everything in Photoshop that photographers used to do with filters.

Why This is Wrong:
Whether you're talking about a digital sensor or a piece of emulsion, photography is all about recording light. The whole purpose of traditional filters is to alter the light on its way to the sensor or film so as to achieve an effect. Using Photoshop to mimic a filter is simply "pushing pixels." It's altering ones and zeros. It's trying to change the light after the fact.

Let's take graduated neutral density filters for instance. There are the real deal and there are imitations built into software like Lightroom. The way true graduated ND filters work is by darkening the light coming from the sky as it makes its way to the sensor. The way the "graduated ND filter" in Lightroom works is by darkening blown out pixels to make the sky appear darker. So with the real McCoy, the bright light is tamed down so that the sensor can actually record the sky in all its detail and color. With the cheap imitation, a blown out sky with no detail at all is artificially darkened without ever recovering much more detail.

Check out this side-by-side example. The image on the left was taken with no filters and the image received almost no post-production work. The image on the right is my attempt to digitally mimic a graduated ND filter on the exact same file. I used the dodge and burn tool in Photoshop along with gradients, layers and curves. It took about 10 minutes to do all that work to just one image.

Graduated ND ImitationYou'll see that the sky is a bit darker and there is a little bit more detail, but it's really no replacement for the real deal, as illustrated below. In the next comparison, take a look at how much better the image is when I utilized a simple traditional graduated ND filter. The image on the left is the same one as above - no filters with heavy post-processing. The image on the right is the picture taken correctly with proper filters with almost no post-processing work. Time spent on the computer for the image on the left: about 10 minutes. Time spent on the computer for the image on the right: about 10 seconds.

Digital Grad ND vs Read Grad NDLook at that...you can actually see detail in the sky! With a simple $40 filter and zero time spent in Photoshop, I went from a blown out sky with no detail to a beautiful sky with lots of detail.

No filters vs a Grad ND

So you can see that my Photoshop imitation of a grad ND doesn't even hold a candle to the real grad ND. It doesn't recover detail in the sky, it doesn't capture the color in the clouds and it doesn't preserve the quality of the original file. More work with worse results. I don't know about you, but I like to worker smarter, not harder.

Here's another variation on this picture that, again, utilizes true grad ND filters and received almost no post-processing.

Using Graduated ND Filters

Same goes for circular polarizers. Those filters cut through reflections on everything from water to windows to foliage. There is no replacement for that in the computer!

The Truth:
Filters are just as important today as they were with film!  There's no replacement for altering the light on its way to the sensor. And no matter how much money you spend on Photoshop and all its plugins, no piece of software can travel back in time to the moment you clicked the shutter and alter the light before it hits the sensor. Especially when it comes to blown out pixels, Photoshop just can't work miracles. If pixels are blown out, there is literally no detail to be recovered. And if you're thinking, "But Nick, what about HDR." Well...don't get me started.

My Thoughts and Rants:
I don't know where this idea started that just because everything's digital now, we don't need traditional filters anymore. I have a sneaking suspicion that it's all rooted in marketing from image-editing software companies. They want you to buy software, so they market their products as a replacement for filters. Just like diet pills trying to convince you it's a replacement for proper nutrition and exercise.

But regardless of where it came from, this mentality drives me nuts! To me, it's like using software to correct a horrible, pitchy musician who really has no business singing in the first place. Instead, let's ditch the software and just get someone who can actually sing. Is that really such a novel idea these days? What would the world be like if we never used Auto-Tune or Photoshop ever again? All the horrible musicians and photographers would drift out of sight like dregs at the bottom of a dirty bucket of water. Then all the actual talent would float to the top. Oh, also all of our supermodels and celebrities would suddenly look flawed and human. God forbid!

Bottom line is this: using software to mimic proper use of filters out in the field is the work of incompetent photographers. They can operate software, but they can't operate a camera. But don't fret if you fall into this category. We were all incompetent photographers at one point. But don't turn to software to fix your images - just become a better photographer through study and practice! Then you can save the $600 you would have spent on Photoshop for something really valuable, like filters and a tripod...or your mortgage.

 

Car Mods and the View From Santiago Peak

Well this is going to be a little bit different kind of post than my usual new pics, how-to's, announcements or testimonials. This one is about my truck...

Wait! Come back, ladies! I'll be brief about the truck and then it's on to some pretty pictures that I was able to get because of the truck! I promise.

2000 4Runner with Gobi Stealth Rack

Okay, so I recently completed a big project on my Toyota 4Runner in order to make it more capable for the type of work I plan on doing and the types of trips I plan on taking. First, I installed a sweet roof rack from Gobi that replaces my factory roof rack rails with a very handy basket-style rack. It'll make it easier to carry big loads of gear and anything I don't want to keep in the car, like gas cans and/or my mountain bike.

After the rack, I personally installed 8 auxiliary lights for nighttime off-roading and camping. There are 4 lights up front, 2 in the back and 1 on each side. The lights up front pierce through the darkness as I travel through new territory. The lights in the back will serve as reverse lights as well as utility lights for when I need some illumination as I pack up gear, cook a meal or even help someone change a tire in the darkness (which already happened). The lights on either side can serve as utility lights as well, but also are great for illuminating the inside of hairpin turns going up and down switchbacks.

2000 4Runner with Gobi Stealth Rack

Installing the lights took a total of 30 hours over a very, very hot 3-day weekend last month. Totally worth it. I'll be taking a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the next month or two where they will really come in handy.

Alright, enough about my truck...

Yesterday, I decided to spend my labor day off-roading up to Santiago Peak in the Cleveland National Forest. For those of you outside of Orange County, Santiago Peak is the highest peak in Orange County (actually, I'm not even sure it's technically in Orange County or Riverside County). It's the taller of the 2 peaks of Saddleback Mountain, the tallest and most prominent geographic feature to the east.

Basically, if you were driving from inland towards the Pacific Ocean, this peak is the last peak over 5000' before you hit the beach.

When I reached the top, I could see all the way out to Catalina Island off the coast and up to Long Beach in the north. The east and south were blanketed mostly by a late-summer storm, but still had great views. Actually, that summer storm made for a very interesting sky.

Here's the view looking south:

Looking South from Santiago Peak, Orange County, CA

Looking west towards the Pacific Ocean with Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo and others in the foreground:

Looking West from Santiago Peak, Saddleback Mountain, Orange County, CA

Here's a panoramic view of Orange County to the Pacific Ocean. Be sure to click the image for a much, much bigger version!

View from atop Saddleback Mountain overlooking Orange County

Anyone living in OC will recognize those radio towers atop Saddleback Mountain:

Radio Towers atop Saddleback Mountain

Here's the view looking west again. Notice Catalina Island off to the right:

Looking West from Santiago Peak, Saddleback Mountain, Orange County, CA

One of these days, I'm going to make this long drive to the top of Saddleback for sunrise or sunset. With the lights I installed on my truck, the dark trail will be a cake walk 😀

10 Essentials for the Outdoor Photographer

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography

In the world of hiking, camping and backpacking, there are the “10 Essentials.” It’s a universal list of 10 things you should always have with you when setting out to explore the wilderness. It includes things like a first aid kit, water, food, a map, sunscreen, matches, etc.

If you plan on heading into nature to take some pictures, you should keep the 10 essentials in mind — even if it’s just a short local trip. Things can turn bad in an instant and many people who die or nearly die in the wild were no more than a few miles from the nearest help.

But in addition to the 10 essentials, I thought I’d share with you my list of “10 Camera Bag Essentials” for the outdoor photographer. These are items gleaned from 11 years of shooting that I’ve found to be invaluable for outdoor photography. Some items will stay in your bag all the time while others you can throw in at the last minute.

So in no particular order, here they are...

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Lens PenLens Pen

Whoever invented this thing is a genius. A lens pen is a $7 item that’ll last you years and will come in handy more times than you can count. It’s shaped like a thick pen (wouldn’t you know it) and consists of a retractable brush on one end with a soft chamois pad on the other. The brush is great for sweeping dust off your lenses and filters while the chamois pad will buff out finger prints and smudges. With a handy clip built in, this thing slides nicely into a shirt pocket so it’s always at the ready.

Lens Cloths (lots and lots of lens cloths)

Put a lens cloth in every main compartment of your bag, inside and out. It seems every time you really need a lens cloth, the colors in the sky are at their peak and you only have about 90 seconds before the moment is gone forever. You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to find that one pocket where you keep your lens cloth, so just stash one in every single compartment you can, then you’ll always find one no matter what pocket you check first. And if you have some extra cleaning cloths from your sunglasses, just throw those in — they are the same ones you buy at a camera store.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Multi-ToolMulti-Tool

Two words: 127 Hours. If you saw that movie, you know what I’m talking about.

...alright that’s not the real reason you should have a good multi-tool in your bag. You should invest in a decent multi-tool with pliers and screwdrivers because they are an endlessly valuable tool to have at hand when dealing with mechanical equipment like cameras and tripods. They can be used for everything from fixing a loose tripod screw to extracting a fishbone lodged in your brother’s throat (which is something mine has been used for). Also, throw any allen wrenches into your bag that may have come with your tripod.

Handkerchief

You could also pack a small towel in your bag, but I like handkerchiefs because they fold up small, they’re lightweight and they can be used for a multitude of tasks. If your camera gets drenched from a rogue wave, it’ll mop up the seawater. If you find yourself in a light rain, you can drape it over your camera for some basic shielding. Or if it’s just too damn hot out, you can soak it in a creek and wrap it around your neck for some good relief.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Flashlight and HeadlampFlashlight/Headlamp

I’d recommend bringing both a headlamp and a flashlight. An LED headlamp is great for keeping your hands free while you work in the dark. A flashlight with better reach than your headlamp is good for the walk/hike back to the car. I use a Petzl headlamp and an LED Mini Maglite flashlight myself, but there are tons of great brands out there.

Warm Clothes

Weather can change in an instant, especially once the sun drops, so I rarely leave for a photo shoot without a jacket in my bag — even in the summer. In fact, I leave gloves in my camera bag at all times. Gloves are the kind of thing that hardly ever come in handy, but when they do, they really come in handy...uh, no pun intended. But get some gloves with a good grippy palm so you can still handle your camera.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - CompassCompass

Aside from the obvious “find your way out of the wilderness” implications, a compass is a great tool to have in your bag so you can better predict a sunset or sunrise. It’s easy to get turned around as to which way is west when you’re in a new location, especially in the middle of the day. A compass will aid you in figuring out where to be for when the sunset or sunrise rolls around.

Smart Phone

With thousands of comprehensive apps out there, a smart phone is a smart item (haha - I kill me...) to keep with you on a shoot. I have apps for checking the tides, the sunset and sunrise times, the moon phases, moonrise times and more. Also, you can take notes about what filters you used, what your thought process was or any little tidbits you want to remember when reviewing the pictures later. But don’t rely on your smart phone for something more important than just tide information or sunset times. Don’t count on it for a compass or GPS because your smart phone has batteries, and batteries die.

Cash

Many places you’ll want to shoot require a parking or entrance fee that must be in cash. Of course, when you show up, that’s the one time you forgot to get cash. So, you may want to just leave $20 in your camera bag at all times. Break it up into some ones and fives, too, so you can cover those $3 honor system parking fee drop boxes.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - BatteriesBatteries

Yeah. This is a no-brainer. But it’s so important that I’m pointing it out anyway. Make sure your camera batteries have a charge before you go out and bring some extras if there’s any risk they’ll die before you can get back to a wall outlet. But make sure to bring batteries for any other powered devices you might have with you. That includes batteries for your flashlight, headlamp and GPS unit.

So there you have some good “10 Essentials” type basics to think about when packing your camera bag. I keep these in mind even if I’m just hitting a local beach that’s no more than 3 minutes from civilization.

I also tend to bring water with me no matter how long I plan on being out. You’re usually out longer than you intended and you’ll burn a few more calories than you thought you would. Nothing sucks more than leaving a good sunset early because you just couldn’t take the thirst anymore. Same goes for a snack. Throw some trail mix in your bag and never miss the good light because you were starving.