Friday, March 16, 2007

Dalek Patrol Step-By-Step

Daleks on patrol
Canon G3, f8 @ 1/6sec, ISO 50
Flash and torchlight

I've been a member of the Flickr Dalek! group for a few weeks now, and was inspired by the group's description to try my hand at "Skaro-type scenery." I'd recently been watching the 1965 film Dr. Who And The Daleks, and was taken with the luscious blue-green lighting scheme used for the surface of the dead planet Skaro. Reproducing that look with only one flashgun would be tricky, plus there was the problem of setting up a suitable diorama.

But I kept my eyes open for suitable materials, and in the end the problem was solved using a toy Sonic Screwdriver, three celeriac roots and a very old baking potato...

Camera on a tripod with flash aimed at big sheets of green card to create the green lighting.

Set-up: the landscape is made out of pieces of celeriac and sprouting potatoes, resting on a sheet of heavy-duty display card, white side up. The vegetables were cut in half to give the impression of rocks embedded in snow. I was surprised at how few pieces (five halves of celeriac plus half a potato) were needed to make an effective diorama. A dusting of flour gives the impression of snow.
The green light was provided by bouncing an off-camera flash off some big sheets of fluorescent green paper. It's a Canon camera and flash linked by an old Nikon cable (therefore no TTL flash control), so I set the flash to manual mode and made test shots at different power settings till I got clear, but gloomy looking green illumination. The camera was set to f8@ ISO 50.

The camera is a Canon G3 compact with a lens adaptor and +4 close-up filter attached.

The blue spotlight on the Daleks came from a blue LED torch (appropriately, sold as a Dr. Who Sonic Screwdriver toy). I set the camera to manual, and fiddled with the shutter speed* until the blue light from the torch was bright enough - this LED torch is quite strong, so 1/6 sec was enough for a correct exposure.

*I needed to leave the aperture at the camera's maximum setting of f8 for two reasons; first, the flash was set up to give correct exposure at f8, secondly, f8 delivers maximum depth of field, making more of the model come out in sharp focus, which makes it seem bigger.


A shot as it comes out of the camera - in this case, focus is on the Daleks and the foreground is blurred.

I tried a number of different arrangements of Daleks and landscape. The camera could not keep the whole scene in sharp focus, so I took three shots of each set-up, one with focus on the extreme foreground, one focussing on the lead Dalek, and one on the far Daleks. In the sample shot (above) you can see that the foreground rocks and background Dalek are out of focus.


3 shots combined give sharp focus from front to back - the background hillocks and Dalek are overpainted with semi-transparent green to give the impression of a foggy atmosphere.

The next step (above right) was to paste foreground, midground and background shots into layers in a Photoshop file, then hide the out-of-focus parts of each layer using layer masks until only the sharply-focussed parts of each shot were visible. That creates a combined image where everything is in sharp focus from front to back.

Left: Detail showing the image with the mask (top) and without (bottom).

I also sampled the sky colour and used it to paint semi-transparent masks over the background Dalek and hills to give the impression of a slightly foggy atmosphere, and to make the foreground Daleks stand out.


The same scene with moon and hand-drawn snow added

The next step was to add wind-blown snow (above). For this I sampled colours from the picture, and on a new layer I drew little dashes over the picture with a Wacom tablet. I tried to make the colour of the flakes match the lighting of the picture. I then used Photoshop's Motion Blur filter to add a bit of "zip" to the flakes, as if they'd been caught in motion.
I added flakes on several layers, making the dashes fewer and bigger towards the foreground. The "closest" dashes had Gaussian Blur added to the Motion Blur, to give the impression they were out of focus because they were so close to the camera.
I also added the moon to the sky, using a green borrowed from the reflections on the hindmost Dalek. The moon was a black & white picture pasted into an alpha channel in Photoshop, then loaded as a selection and filled with a gradient (green-to-transparent).


Grain has been added in the sky to give the impression of distant snowflakes.

I decided the background looked too clean; there should be thousands of snowflakes in the sky. That's far too many to add by hand, so to give the impression of tiny flakes, I duplicated the image, flattening layers, and applied the Add Grain filter. This gave a gritty look to the sky, consistent with falling snow. However, the effect was all over the image, including the foreground where there would be no tiny flakes, so I copied the image and pasted it into a layer in the original file. I then used a layer mask to hide the foreground parts of the picture, letting the smooth, unfiltered image show through from beneath (above). I also added a bit of airbrushed "dust" to the base of the Daleks' skirts.

After all that, I decided the hand-drawn showflakes all looked to even and regular, giving the impression of something drifting gently through the air rather than being whipped along by a storm. So I made a copy of the file and re-drew the snowflakes, this time following the lines of the landscape and mixing the directions up a little, to give the impression of gusting snow (below).

The finished item: I really should have been working instead.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

E550 Update

Middlesbrough, March 2007

Six months on from first getting my Fuji Finepix E550, I thought I'd do an update on my first report. I'd been attracted to the E550 because of its fast startup time and minimal shutter lag, despite slight niggles about limited macro focussing and JPEG compression options.

First off: after six months, the E550 is still the camera I carry everywhere, and buying it has proved to be a very good decision. The quicker startup/shutter release has given me the ability to catch shots I'd simply have missed with my older cameras.

Top: Sascha the cat, Edinburgh, February 2007
Left: Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh, February 2007
Right, Manchester, February 2007

Sascha the cat here was endlessy pacing back and forth along this windowledge, but the E550 kept up with her just fine; similarly, the illicit shot of the mannequin taken in Harvey Nichols was made possible by the fact that the E550 starts up just about as quickly as a film compact. The picture of the drummer doesn't look as if it required split-second timing, but in fact it was taken on a packed shopping street; it had to be grabbed during a moment when the crowd parted.

There have been a couple of occasions when I've missed the better macro mode of my old Canons, but since I mostly use the E550 for candids, it's not really been an issue. Most of my macro stuff is done at home using the old Canon G3, but the E550 is still good enough to capture shots like these:

Left and Right: Edinburgh, November 2006

Neither are world-beating by the standards of modern digital compacts, but they'd still have been completely beyond the reach of my old film compacts.

JPEG settings - the E550 is a 6mp camera with an option to interpolate files up to 12mp. Now for me, 6mp is more than big enough, but annoyingly, there's no high quality JPEG compression option at that size; you have to go up to 12mp to get it. I'd read on DPReview that it was worth using the 12mp mode to get optimum image quality, but after a month or so of waiting ages for the bigger files to download from the camera (and open in Adobe Bridge) I gave up and went back to 6mp. For the uses I put my pictures to, I can't say I've noticed any adverse effects.
My only real niggle about the compression settings is that at 6mp, the digital zoom option is always on. I hate digital zoom and never use it, but I can't find a way of switching it off. Although there's a step between optical and digital zoom (the indicator "sticks" for a second when you reach the threshold so you don't just slide from one to another), I always worry that I'll end up in the digital zoom range without noticing.

To counterbalance the previous niggle, the E550's flash is, for my purposes, the best flash unit of any compact I've ever seen - that is, it suits the purposes of someone who hardly ever uses flash, and certainly doesn't want it firing accidentally when he's taking candids.
The E550's flash unit is a little pop-up unit that will only ever pop up if the user chooses to switch it on by hand. It's obvious when the flash is extended and when it isn't, so there's no chance at all of it going off when you don't want it.
Flash exposure is excellent (even close up) though it does lock the camera up for a second or so while it recharges after each shot. If you use flash a lot, this system would be annoying, but as far as I'm concerned, the only way they could improve it would be to remove the flash entirely and replace it with a hot shoe.

After some initial paranoia about dynamic range*, I'm now happy to use the E550 for the sort of fine-detail, extended tonal range "pseudo medium format" type shots I used to do with my old Canons. At the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 80), the sensor produces smooth images that convert beautifully to black & white.

*Based on nothing at all, I had the feeling that Fujis "should" be more contrasty than Canons.

Sheffield, February 2007

If you look at the image above, the dynamic range is excellent, with detail preserved in both the highlights and the shadows areas. Up to ISO 200, there are no issues with image quality for my purposes, and noise is well controlled at ISO 400.

Grassmarket, Edinburgh, January 2007

The E550 has an ISO 800 setting that works at 3mp resolution only, but it's still perfectly usable, especially if noise-reduction is applied; this shot of the Grassmarket (above) was taken at ISO 800.

Left: Lille, December 2006
Edinburgh, January 2007

The E550's automatic exposure copes well enough even with difficult situations like the wok chef (above left). For more difficult subjects like the all-black public ashtray (above right), I switched to manual and used an incident meter to take an exposure reading.

So any actual problems?

Well, the E550's controls run the opposite way to the Canons I used previously, with the result that I'm always turning things up when I mean to turn them down and vice-versa.

I love the fact that the flash defaults to "off," but others might not.

I did have a weird problem with the camera conking out in mid-exposure which was solved by replacing the really cheap NiMh rechargeable batteries I'd been using with better quality ones (Jessops own brand); battery life has increased greatly, too - from about three days between charges to about three weeks.

Because I use cameras from three different manufacturers, I don't bother with camera drivers and software; I use a card reader and Adobe Bridge to preview the images I want to download from the card. If I accidentally apply Bridge settings (say rotation) to a file on the E550's XD card, there must be some sort of metadata conflict that causes the name of the affected file to be completely rewritten and the .JPG file extension to be lost.
The result is that the JPEG preview image disappears and Bridge (and Mac OS) classify the file as "Unix Executable" rather than any readable image file format. However, all is not lost - by copying the file to the hard disk and renaming it according to the Fuji convention - DSCFXXXX.jpg - it returns to life as a fully usable JPEG. Sadly, as far as I can make out, there's no way of renaming the original copy of the file on the XD card, so that remains unreadable by the camera.

Overall, my impression of the E550 is the same as it was a few months ago - it's a very fast and flexible camera, well suited to capturing fast action and candids, albeit with the odd little quirk. If you like the look of it, consider also the replacement model, the E900, which is available at a very reasonable price on Amazon right now.

More Tiny Daleks

Trial Dalek's-eye shot with Sigma 10-20mm zoom.
The foreground Daleks are within the lens's close-focus limit,
but remain relatively sharp due to depth-of-field (lens @ f22)

Further to my last post, I had a go at photographing close up with the "24mm" wide-angle adaptor on my Canon G3. The adaptor does wonders for the close-focussing distance (it can focus on objects that are touching the front element), but the micro-Daleks still weren't any larger in the frame than they had been with the Sigma 10-20mm zoom. Furthermore, the strong barrel dostortion caused by the adaptor is really prominent close-up - the end result is, it might be useful for the odd special effect (maybe even the view through a Dalek's eye-stalk), but when it came down to it, I got a much better result simply using the G3's own lens at the wide (35mm FoV) setting, with a +4 close up filter on the lens adaptor.

Dalek's eye view with Canon G3, 35mm FoV with +4 close-up lens @ f8
The narrower angle allows the foreground Daleks to fill the frame and then some.