Stability

Long exposure with no tripod or monopod

Even the most adventurous of us need a certain amount of stability. But I’m not talking about financial or mental or interpersonal stability today. I’m referring to the never ending debate about tripods vs. monopods.

Why do we need them?

Many people today value crisp, tack sharp images. To achieve this requires good cameras, good lenses, and good technique. One primary factor of the technique is minimizing camera shake.

We tend to talk about camera shake as a binary thing: yes/no, on/off, shake/no shake. The reality is that it is a range. It is kind of like focus. If something is considered in focus, we really mean it has an acceptable level of focus. Good enough for our purpose, not an absolute.

Likewise, for camera shake, we must take the point of view that it must be minimized enough for our need.

Most people tend to hand hold their cameras. I know I do when I can. It is much faster and easier. Achieving sharp images hand held requires special techniques that we will discuss later.

But when we know we need maximum sharpness, the standard response it to pull out the tripod, or monopod. It’s a debate.

Tripods

Tripods are the three-legged things we are all familiar with. They seem to have been around forever and they tend to be pretty large. The three equally spaced legs provides an optimum stable platform in all directions.

Tripods used to be made of wood. Classical and lovely to look at, but heavy, Then they moved to generally bring made of aluminum or alloys. These were lighter and durable. A problem they had, though was vibration. Referred to as dampening when we’re talking about stability. The metal was kind of springy. It would vibrate when perturbed by a force. Like bumping it or when the mirror of your big DSLR “slaps” up to take a picture. The metal legs would vibrate for many milliseconds before stopping. This caused distortion while the shutter was open, which was probably for those same milliseconds.

Later, most high end tripods moved to carbon fiber construction. This material has many advantages, but, of course, it is more expensive. The carbon fiber is strong and relatively light. It has much better dampening than metal, so vibrations are smaller. And if your hand has ever frozen to a metal tripod in the winter, well, carbon fiber doesn’t do this nearly as bad. For me, that by itself is a reason to switch to it.

I have an excellent carbon fiber tripod with a great ball head. I use it for some critical images or long exposures.

Tripod disadvantages

Good tripods, used correctly, provide excellent stability. But this means you have to have it, there, when you need it. Perhaps this means carrying it miles over rugged trails for that one shot.

Personally, I don’t do that much anymore. For me, a photo expedition should be a joy. I’m too old to enjoy carrying a heavy tripod a long ways. Sure, there are small versions that strap conveniently to your camera bag, but they have their problems too. Usually the small ones are short and I have to squat down uncomfortably to use them. Or if they are tall enough, they are not stable enough.

I have a small one that fits nicely in a checked bag for air travel. I often take it. And just as often do not use it.

And using a tripod slows you down a lot. Deciding where to set it, setting it up, mounting the camera, adjusting and leveling it all take quite a bit of time and effort. Some say this is an advantage, because it makes you spend more time considering what you are shooting and the composition of the shot. I partially agree and have experienced this. But often I am in a flow and shooting instinctively. The tripod absolutely gets in the way of this.

Monopods

A monopod is just one leg of a tripod, right? To some people that makes it 1/3 or less as useful as a tripod. Others (including me) would say it can be as useful or more so.

If you are not familiar with them, try this experiment. Take a broom and hold it upside down with the handle down on the floor. How does it move?

You will see that it does not move up or down in the vertical axis. It does more fairly freely in a circular arc left and right, back and forth. Is this minimal amount of stabilization worth it?

To me it often is. The vertical axis is one of the most vibration prone areas for me. And being constrained on the monopod seems to add mass or resistance in the other axes. Either it is real or it is psychological. But in any case, it makes my images more stable.

Monopod advantages

Yes, it is unfair to only talk about tripod disadvantages and monopod advantages, but I want to make a point. There are often ways to overcome the disadvantages of a monopod.

I have a great monopod. It extends to about 7 ft. and has a small but very nice ball head with quick release on it. It is my walking stick. I like that it is light enough and very strong to serve well as a useful and comfortable walking stick. I am far more likely to take it on a hike than I am a tripod.

When I want to take an image, it sets up quickly – basically just attaching my camera to the quick release. It provides a decent degree of stability, and there are techniques I can use to improve if necessary.

For instance, if a railing is handy, I can brace the foot of the monopod against my shoe and force the leg tight against the railing. I have taken very sharp 30 second exposures this way. Trees work fairly well, too. Lean the mounted camera against a tree for added stability. It can be a great tool.

Which to choose?

I probably seem biased. It is more of a pragmatic choice. Tripods are great for stability. It is usually the best choice for long exposures.

Monopods are great when you are out on the trail or otherwise away from your car. If you practice and learn to work with it instead of against it, it can improve many situations to an acceptable level.

I own a really good tripod and a really good monopod. The monopod gets used about 10 times more than the tripod. But I hand hold about 10 times more than either of them.

Parameters of sharpness

To put things in perspective, today’s high pixel count sensors force us to use very good technique to get the results we want. If the image moves as much as 1 pixel during an exposure, we can often detect a blur.

Pixel pitches are measured in microns today. A micron is 1 millionth of a meter. The length of a bacterium is about 1-10 microns. A strand of spider silk is 3-8 microns in width.

How is it ever possible to take a sharp image?

Alternatives

Several things can work for us. The amazing technology in our cameras provides things like in-body stabilization to minimize the effect of camera shake. It usually improves things a lot.

And the electronics are improving to allow higher and higher ISO settings to be used. I consider 400 ISO to be my normal setting rather than the 64 ISO native value. That automatically gives me about a 3 stop speed advantage.

The old “rule” when I was shooting film was that, if you are good, you could hand hold at a shutter speed of twice the focal length. This doesn’t work anymore for our high density sensors. People say the shutter speed should be 3-4 times the focal length. But with the better electronics allowing higher ISO with good results, this is often possible.

Don’t overlook simple but obvious tricks. There may be something to brace the camera on or against. I often lean against a tree or a pole or a wall for added stability. Or I have put the camera on a rock or a bench and used a self timer to trigger the shot. Simple things like these can let you take amazing images in unlikely places.

And there are simple techniques you can adapt that increase the stability of hand held shots. Things like bracing the camera against your forehead and forcing your elbows close against your body. And exhaling slowly as you slowly press the shutter. A video on gun shooting technique could be helpful. They have studied the problem a long time.

So tripod or monopod? I lean toward the monopod. But it is not necessarily an either or choice. There are many creative ways to stabilize your camera. Unless you’re out in the desert with nothing around, there is often something that can be used.

Today’s image

This was shot in an airport (obviously) with no tripod or monopod. I couldn’t set the camera on the table in the restaurant where we were eating because there was a joint in the glass that was in the way. I put my camera on my camera bag on the floor. This is a composite of several 4 second shots.

I used a 2 second timer to allow me to get my hand away and not shake the fragile setup. I could have used the camera app on my phone to trigger it, but that is always so tricky and slow to set up that I seldom do it.

Craftsmanship

Hand held, old digital camera, estimated metering.

I have written a few times about how intent and expression are more important in a photograph than craftsmanship. I don’t want to leave the impression that craftsmanship is unimportant. It is critically important for a serious artist.

What is craft?

Craft is defined as skill at carrying out one’s work, or an activity involving skill in making things by hand. I believe an artist first has to be a craftsman. Proficient with his tools. Using our tools and equipment must be second nature.

Craftsmanship is usually a learned skill rather than an innate talent. Sure, some things are easier for some people than others, but it still has to be learned. Lots of investment of time and practice.

When we get skilled at the craft, the mechanics recedes into the background. It becomes a support and enabler for our artistic vision.

Perfection doesn’t make a picture

I have argued before that perfection of craft does not make a great image. The classic statement is Ansel Adam’s quote that “There’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept”.

It might be better to say craft alone does not make a great image. It is a table stake. You need it to get in the game. An excellently crafted image may not be great, but a poorly crafted image is very seldom great.

Craftsmanship is the base

Craftsmanship is a base we build our work on. But it is only a base, one of the legs of the stool. We also have to have vision and creativity and the drive to express them. I believe this expression cannot happen without solid craftsmanship.

I have said before that photography is one of the most technical of the arts. We are dependent on our equipment. Knowing how to use it correctly and effectively is absolutely critical to success.

We must study and practice and drill until it becomes second nature. Have you trained your hands to just “know” where the camera controls are? Can you use them in the dark? With gloves on? Can you quickly and almost instinctively determine the exposure solution that aligns with your intent for the image? Are composition and framing decisions happening rapidly in the background with little conscious thought?

When you’re out in the field working a scene you like, you don’t need to spend time juggling the technical tradeoffs in adjusting the camera. This distracts you from the artistic side. For instance, recognizing that this scene needs about f/8 to get the depth of focus you want and, since you are hand holding, at least 1/200th second shutter speed to insure a crisp image. Given that, are you willing to go to ISO 1600 to get these settings? These decisions should be almost instantaneous and subconscious.

This is not to say you are operating by habit or on automatic. Quite the opposite. It is a state of flow. You are channeling all the craft you know to focus on the moment at hand. It is exhilarating.

Photography is a craft

Photography is a craft. Most arts are, but it seems more obvious in photography. We cannot create without our tools. And we cannot create well unless we are proficient with our tools.

Let’s take a quick look at the chain of technologies required in photography.

On the capture side there is the camera, of course. They are not trivial anymore. The user manual for my Nikon Z7-II is 866 pages. That just describes all the settings available, not how to use them. Becoming skilled at using one of these is formidable. Luckily, most of us only use a subset of the capability.

And how much data do I need for what I am doing? Shooting full frame 40MPixels and above requires much more refined technique to achieve great results. Maybe what I’m doing today would be just fine with a 20MPixel APC camera. Do I have large and fast enough memory cards for my shoot? Enough batteries?

There are the lenses and filters to select. It takes training to understand the effects possible and how to select the right look for the situation. Should I use a zoom lens when I know it is theoretically possible get a little better sharpness with a prime lens?

Am I in the camp that says all images must be shot on a tripod? Or am I a hand-held guy? Or either, depending on the situation? Shooting hand held, do I know the techniques to get maximum sharpness? Or the techniques to shoot moving subjects?

What about capture file formats? White balance? Camera profile settings?

Processing

That’s just the capture of an image. If you shoot RAW images, which I hope you do, the images are useless until they have been processed intensely.

First, they have to be transferred to your computer. Do you have enough storage? My main image storage is currently using over 7 Terabytes. Then there’s multiple backup of that.

If you are processing high resolution files you will need significant computing power. Lots of memory and graphic processing power. And a great, color calibrated monitor. Hopefully of 5K or more. That power is required to be able to process images fluidly without having to wait for the machine to catch up. Waiting really breaks your concentration.

And of course, you use a color balanced process. Your camera and monitor are calibrated and you are using a wide color gamut system like ProPhoto RGB. A wide gamut allows lots of freedom in editing.

All that processing takes a lot of time. So when you go out and shoot 1000 images, don’t forget that they have to be processed, and culled and keyworded and filed.. For me, processing an image takes anywhere from 1 minute to 8 hours.

Output

How you process an image depends on what you are using it for. Getting something ready to post on social media probably just requires some color and tone correction and maybe cropping. Preparing an image for a print could take a long time.

Let me take the path of going to a print, since that is my preferred utilization.

A print is a physical object that is perceived different from an image on a screen. The viewing time of a print is usually much longer than an image on screen. As such, it generally needs to be processed to a higher standard. Very careful spotting – removing sensor dust spots – is critical. Spending time removing or mitigating distracting elements is usually important.

Many of the remaining decisions center on the characteristics of the final output. What size will the print be? What paper will be used. All papers have different properties and strengths and weaknesses. The paper can make the print look very different. Is it matte or glossy? Coated or uncoated? Heavy or thin? What color is it – papers aren’t necessarily white.

To get an estimate of the final result requires turning on proofing during the editing. The computer attempts to simulate the final printed result. Of course, to do that, you need accurate profiles for the paper and printer combination. But that is just an approximation. It may need more than one attempt. And what about out of gamut colors on your print? Handling those can be tricky and exasperating.

Build on it

That is a lot! And this is just talking about still photography. Photographers have to be expert at most of what I described. That is some of the craft involved. All of this craft has to be used intelligently in the process of making a great image. It’s why I say that photography is one of the most technical and craft-based arts.

But as much as we sometimes like to burrow into the fun details, the craft is a base. Build your base solid. But on top of the base, we need to build our artistic sensibility, our vision. We have to establish our style.

Craft means knowing how to use your tools to achieve the results you want. Maybe that is an ultra crisp, tack sharp image. Maybe it is a flowing abstract with no sharp pixels. Yours might run to dark and moody and underexposed. Somebody else might be bright and high key. Those are your choices. Whatever your vision leads you to do, it is your craft that allows you to achieve it.

Throw It Away

Going to work on a Paris morning

This is a controversial subject. I have touched on it before, but it is time to circle back. My assertion is that most of us should throw away more of our work. Horrors! Kill our darlings? Sounds terrible! But I am convinced that one excellent way to improve our work is to throw it away.

We probably overshoot

It is so easy now days with digital cameras. There seems to be no cost for shooting a lot of frames. We “work the scene”, taking many shots at different angles and positions and focal lengths. Refining it to find the best view. And then shoot a few insurance shots, you know, in case one doesn’t record properly or we jiggle the camera. You know.

That’s a pretty typical process and can be useful. But the reality is these shots are not free. We have to edit them, cull through them to select the best, do some “quick” processing to see if they seem worth investing more in. This takes a lot of time. They take up disk and backup storage space.

So where with film, we might have taken 3 or 4 images of a scene, now we come back with 15 or 20 or more. That can be good. If you really have to work through different views to determine what is best, then do it. Or increased experience might help to get you there in fewer attempts.

For example, you come to a nice waterfall. So you shoot brackets of apertures from f/ 2.8 to f/22, and brackets of shutter speeds from 1/1000th to 10 sec, and exposures from -3 to +2 stops. Just in case. Why? You should know from experience what you prefer. You should know that f/8 +/- a little is what you like with this lens at this distance. The amount of blurring you prefer is usually achieved at around 1/4 to 1/10 second for this kind of subject. You should know how to expose to the right and prevent clipping of highlights.

Just that takes it from shooting all possible combinations to intelligently determining what to do. You have a style and preference and you should be comfortable with the craft. Why shoot things you know you won’t like?

Overshooting creates a huge backlog of work. And lots of wasted disk space. And a cluttered Lightroom catalog. Simplify.

We keep too much

OK, let’s say you intentionally shoot a lot of images of a scene as you work it. How much of that do you really need to keep?

Are you going to keep all the shots in case you later change your mind later about what you like? Don’t. Make an artistic decision and stick with it. Don’t keep that full bracket of apertures “just in case” you change your mind.

We make it hard on ourselves by second guessing our decisions. Decide what you like in the group, what matches your intent at the time, and throw away most of the others. My experience is that if I didn’t know what I liked at the time, one of the variations seldom captures “it” either.

The great gets lost in the sea of good

Are you drowning in a sea of pictures? So much that you can’t locate the shots you like best? I get the impression that this is an increasing problem for a lot of people.

A solution is a more disciplined filing and catalog system. This is made much easier when there are fewer images competing for our attentions.

You don’t need 20 decent pictures of that scene. You need the one that represents your best artistic sensibility at the time. And that one should be processed to bring out your vision as you saw it then. It should never be a case of wading through many competing images to pick out the best one.

Here is a hard lesson I have had to learn: good images are usually worthless. Only great images have any chance of making it. You seldom need the ones that are only good.

Declutter

I am arguing for decluttering our catalog by removing images you aren’t going to need. But yes, that means you have to kill some of your darlings. Delete perfectly good images.

This hurts. Why should you delete good images? Because as I said earlier, we are artists. We have to have the confidence to make a decision and a statement. This is my vision of that scene. None of the other attempts matter. DaVinci didn’t paint 20 variations of the Mona Lisa.

If you have a catalog of 100,000 images, are they 100,000 excellent images? What good are all those OK images that you will never use? Wouldn’t it be much better to only have 10,000 great images? The numbers are just for discussion. My point is, declutter your environment.

But, we say, I need insurance shots in case my great image gets corrupted. Really? How often does this happen. And if it does, that is what your backup strategy is there to correct.

But I really like all those shots. Yes, but when is the last time you used one of them? Why would you use one of them? If they are not the great image you love, their value is close to zero.

To use the example from before, if you have 100,000 pretty good images, how do you locate that 1 great one you want to submit to a gallery? It is hard to find the signal in the noise.

Declutter. It hurts at first, but is healthy.

Tighten up that portfolio

The same applies to our portfolios and projects. Less is usually more. This is another of those painful lessons experience teaches if we listen.

Your portfolio should have a max size you pick. If you want to add a new image to a portfolio, make yourself decide which one you will replace. This is hard. But here is a truth: every time you take one out, you make the remaining set stronger. Taking out a picture you love doesn’t mean you don’t love it anymore. It just means that it is not the strongest in the group.

I don’t think I have ever damaged a portfolio by taking something out.

Same with projects. That is a little trickier, because sometimes we need images to set a context or help tell our story, but still, they should all be strong. Less is still usually more.

A personal example. I recently needed to pull together a group of images for an exhibit. The subject was one I love, so I had a lot of images I really liked. In my first pass, I pulled out 162 images I loved that I thought would be great for it. I knew that was a ridiculous number for this exhibit, but I really liked all of them.

So hard core culling mode on. After my next pass, it was down to 125. Progress, but way out of range still. I had to remind myself that deleting an image from the set doesn’t mean I don’t like it, just that it was bumped by a stronger image of mine. So with a great struggle, I was down to 69. So far I have taken out nearly 100 of my favorite images!

Narrowing my focus and getting even more selective got it down to 44. It hurt, but now I have narrowed it to 23. I’m kind of stuck right now, but I know I need to get it down to about 15.

A funny thing has happened, though. At this point I believe ALL of them are great images and I could almost randomly select the next 8 to cut. That is an interesting realization.

Be reasonable

In all things you have to make reasonable judgments for yourself. I’m not saying never keep alternate shots of a scene. I routinely keep a few. But I don’t keep duplicates that do not add any value. And I don’t keep alternate images that I know from experience are not my style.

And there are those shots you know are flawed, but you just love them. Fine. I have a lot of those. Generally they are segregated from my “main” images, but they are important memories for me. Or they tell a behind the scenes story that is valuable to me.

I use a multi-pass editing process and I usually let images age some before making many final judgments about them. But I figure if I don’t delete about 1/2 of my shots, either I am on a great run (it happens sometimes) or I’m not being critical enough. Often it runs to 2/3 deleted. And by deleted, I mean really gone, erased, trashed, removed, never to be seen again, digital dust.

It hurts, but the remaining ones are stronger. I want to always be biased toward making the survivors stronger.

Today’s image

The project I described above is on France. More about the joie de vivre rather than a tourist view. To present more of a mirror than a window, to refer back to a recent post. This picture is one i am struggling with. Would you keep it? So far I have. I think it says a lot about the environment and culture and spirit of the people. I love it for a number of reasons. If it doesn’t make it into the final set, I will be disappointed, but it means the overall group has a higher bar.

The Catalog

Decrepit sign along old Route 66.

The catalog is the information hub of LIghtroom. There seems to be a lot of confusing folklore about it. Let’s talk about the catalog and demystify it some.

This is specific to Lightroom Classic. Other tools exist. I do not know them and can’t discuss them. I believe Lightroom is the most widely used image management tool.

A database

When I refer to Lightroom, I mean Lightroom Classic. It is the only useful version for me. So be aware I do not discuss the cloud behavior of Lightroom at all.

Lightroom is both a file management tool and a raw file editor. I’ve discussed raw editing before, so this article will just be about file management. We tend to shoot a lot of images these days. Without a way to organize all these and search for the ones we want, they become almost useless. How do you locate the right file when you need it?

We do it with Lightroom and its catalog. The catalog is a database. I know that is a scary term to some, but it just means it is a file on the computer. The catalog in Lightgroom Classic is stored locally on your computer. It has a particular structure and capabilities that let Lightroom enter information about each image and rapidly search for it.

So the Lightroom catalog holds a lot of data about our images. Some that it reads when we import our images and some that we tell it manually, like keywords and ratings and collection groupings. What the catalog does not contain is images.

None of our images are actually stored in the catalog. They stay in our computer’s file system, wherever we decide to put them, as ordinary image files. They can be on any of our disks, internal or external. The catalog only notes their location and keeps track of it so it can call up images for us in the Lightroom screen.

Where are the images?

I mentioned some of the things the catalog contains. Let’s be more specific. I said the catalog does not contain any images. As you import images into Lightroom you choose where they will be stored. LIghtroom records the location about where each images is in the file structure of your computer. For instance, taking a random file that I happened to be looking at a few minutes ago, the path and file name is:

/Volumes/LaCie-raid/Images/Images/New Mexico/Eastern I-40/Tucumcari/20231110-259.NEF

This is the image above. This is what Lightroom has in the catalog instead of the image. Why? Because the file system of your operating system does an excellent job of managing its disks reliably and speedily. Lightroom does not try to duplicate that. Also, the file above is 52.4 MBytes. Let’s say you had 100,000 images this size stored in your catalog. Over 5TBytes of storage becomes impractical and would overflow a lot of people’s hard drive. And many people’s catalogs are much larger than that. Also, leaving the individual files visible allows us to use other tools to manipulate them.

As I browse in Lightroom, when I come to where I want to look at this image, LIghtroom goes to the noted location on my disk and reads the image file and displays it. Actually, it first looks first in a special place where LIghtroom caches previews to see if there is a faster way to view it, but that is getting too deep for now.

Metadata

In addition, there is what is called metadata. This is just a computer science term meaning data about data. In our case, it is information read from the camera when the file was imported and information we have added manually.

Examples of automatically gathered data are the camera used, including it’s serial number, the lens used., how the image was metered and exposed, the ISO. Also recorded is the dimensions, the data it was captured and many other details.

Information we enter can include creator name, copyright information, keywords, rating, a title, a label, a caption, location, and other things. In addition, as we edit an image, all of the edit settings are recorded, from simple things like adjusting exposure to complex masks and adjustments. Virtual files are just copies of a files’ data in the catalog with a different set of metadata, not a duplicate of the file itself. And all Collections we create are simply sets of data in the catalog. Again, no copies of the files are made to create a Collection.

The catalog holds a lot of data. It is a very important piece of Lightroom and is key to letting the whole thing work.

How many catalogs?

One of the first decisions to make when setting up Lightroom is how many catalogs to have. We could have a separate catalog for each type of content or activity. For instance, one for family photos, one for fine art, one for weddings, one for travel, etc. This initially seems logical to keep things separate and minimize the size of each catalog.

My advice is don’t do it. Resist the temptation to have multiple catalogs. It will just make it harder to organize your work and harder to locate something. It might seem like a good idea to minimize the number of images in a catalog, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter. I have over 130,000 images in my catalog. That is small compared to many other photographers. I am comfortable with throwing away images I deem worthless or exact duplicates. Other people don’t. But that is another discussion.

I put extensive metadata in, such as location information, keywords, ratings, titles, and captions. And I do most of my image editing in Lightroom. This greatly expands the amount of metadata. The point is that this number of images does not appear to cause any stress or slowdown in my Lightroom catalog. I know of photographers who have catalogs several times larger.

Don’t do this

As a “don’t do this” anecdote, I have a friend who decided he knew better than Adobe and was going to manage his data more closely. He set up a catalog for each hard drive he had. As he outgrew a disk and added another one, it was a new catalog. Consequently, he has a data nightmare. It is very difficult for him to locate something unless he can remember exactly when it was shot and consequently what disk and catalog it is on.

I strongly recommend you use 1 catalog and upgrade to larger disks as you run out of space. Yes, Lightroom can manage files across multiple disks, but you probably don’t want the bother. Disks wear out and need to be replaced anyway.

How to organize it?

How you organize your files is a personal decision. You need to figure out how you think about your data and how you “self organize”. You can see several things about my organization decisions from the example I gave of the file location data LIghtroom records. Most of my files are organized geographically. And my file naming is mostly centered on dates. It is not important to me to name images by their content. That is what Lightroom is for.

All my images are stored on 1 fairly fast RAID disk drive. My feeling is this is easy for me to know where things are and easy to organize my backup strategy. The catalog itself is on an external fast SSD. The catalog is heavily used and this made a large improvement in performance.

Be fanatical about backup! Your data is important. I use a combination of Time Machine – one of the greatest inventions in the history of computers – and a rigorous backup strategy using Carbon Copy Cloner. I do not receive any compensation from them for saying this. There are 2 external backup disks attached to my computer and another network attached RAID disk physically separate within my studio. I also backup to small hard disks that I rotate to offsite locations.

So do you have to adopt any of the organization I use? Absolutely not. Every instructor probably has their own unique recommendation that is adapted to their needs and preferences. As I said, it is a personal decision. But it is a decision you have to make. Decide on your strategy and stick with it religiously. It will pay you benefits.

Do all file operations from Lightroom

Have you ever seen a “?” in place of an image? That is because Lightroom could not find the file. This is usually because a disk drive is offline or you moved some files using your computer file manager. Lightroom can’t locate the file and the best it can do is show a preview if it has one and mark it with the “?” to indicate it needs to be located. Locating a moved image is easy, but it is easier to avoid the problem entirely.

Always do all of your file management from within Lightroom. Always! Lightroom has to know the location of each file it manages. It has very good capabilities for creating folders and moving files and folders around. It does the work of moving them on your computer file system and remembers the locations. And It is probably even faster and easier to move a large group of files from LIghtroom than it is using your computers file manager.

All the eggs in one basket?

If all your data is in the catalog, aren’t you at risk if it gets corrupted or erased? Yes. But there are many ways to mitigate this.

LIghtroom has settings to automatically backup its catalog. Use that. Second, use other backup solutions like Time Machine and Carbon Copy Cloner to do your own backups.

Third, you can optionally have most of your metadata also saved to files alongside your image files. These are known as sidecar files and have the extension “.xmp”. I turn on this capability. If the catalog is lost or corrupted it is possible to recover most of my data to a new catalog by importing the images and these sidecar files. This is a topic for another article.

And lastly, I have been using Lightroom full time starting with its original beta release. Adobe has done a marvelous job of reliably keeping my data in tact. This is not a guarantee of future behavior, but so far they have earned my trust.

Summary

The Lightroom Classic catalog is a database stored locally on your computer. It is well established, good technology. Not magic.

We do not see the catalog as a database, we do not have to know about databases, and we do not need to know much about searching databases. All that is wrapped in the Lightroom program. But knowing a little about how it works makes managing it easier.

All of the data about your files is stored in the catalog, but not the image files themselves. The organization of your file structure, the naming of files, and the metadata you add are all completely up to you.

Create an organization that works for you and stick with it. Lightroom will assist you by managing all the data the way you want.

The image with this article is the one I referenced to show the location information Lightroom records. You can infer from the file path that it was shot in Tucumcari NM on Nov 10, 2023. It has nothing specifically to do with catalogs, I just decided to show what that image was to make it real..

Depth of Field

Intentional shallow depth of field

In a previous post I said I would talk about this later. Here it is. I believe most photographers only vaguely understand what depth of field (DOF) means. That’s probably OK, as long as we can still use it to our advantage. You don’t have to know in detail how your car works to be able to drive it, but it helps.

What is it?

You have seen it. We focus on a subject, but when we look at the image we are disappointed that another subject or the background was out of focus. We have been bitten by too little DOF.

Depth of Field is the distance between the nearest and farthest points in the frame that are in acceptably sharp focus. OK, we can intuitively understand distance that is in focus. But what does “acceptably sharp” mean?

The reality is that when your focus your super expensive, multi-element, rare earth material lens, it technically only focuses at exactly one point. Everything else is to some degree out of focus. But like many things in life, the precise details do not matter. What matters is the result.

For most of us in most of our applications, it is OK for things to be a little bit out of theoretical sharp focus. We can’t really see that unless we magnify an image greatly.

Circle of Confusion

So for most of our work, we will accept a certain amount of out of focus as unnoticeable. The measure of this for Physicists and Optical Engineers is called the “circle of confusion“. If you focus on a point of light, you expect it to be imaged as a sharp point. But as one of these points gets in front of or behind the sharp focus plane it becomes a circle instead of a point. You have seen this as you adjust the focus point in a scene.

The overly technical term “circle of confusion” refers to how large these circles are. And what we care about is how large they can get before we perceive them as out of focus. This picture helps illustrate that. The center diagram is focused precisely. The top one is focused slightly behind the focus point. The bottom one is slightly in front of the focus point.

Circle of Confusion illustration

Physics

You probably don’t actually care about the math. But here is it:

The approximate depth of field can be given by: {\displaystyle {\text{DOF}}\approx {\frac {2u^{2}Nc}{f^{2}}}}

for a given maximum acceptable circle of confusion (c), focal length (f), f-number (N), and distance to subject (u).

This is precise, but not helpful. There are DOF calculators available, but most of us will not use them when we’re out shooting. I never would, and I even understand the math. 🙂

What does it really mean?

It means that if we want to maximize the apparent range of sharpness in a scene to our advantage, we need to understand some basic things about our cameras and how to adjust them for the results we want. None of it is magic and we do not need to become mathematicians.

Controlling the DOF becomes just another of the design choices we make more of less automatically as we set up a picture. When we become familiar with the concept it gets to be an easy thing to take in consideration.

How do you control it?

If you unpack the equation above you discover that there are are really only three things to juggle: focal length, aperture, and distance to the subject. I take circle of confusion as a relative constant, since we don’t usually think about it while we are shooting.

Normally we consider the aperture to be our main control of DOF. That is because it is the easiest one to adjust. You have discovered or been taught that a wide aperture (small f/ number) gives a shallow DOF and a small aperture (large f/ number) gives the most DOF. This is true, as far as it goes.

But there are 2 other components to the equation. We also affect DOF by our lens focal length choice and by our distance from the subject.

For any given lens, the closer we are to the subject, the shallower the DOF is. Telephoto lenses exaggerate the effect more than wide angles. Increasing the focal length reduces the DOF. And getting further from the subject greatly increases the DOF. Looking back to the formula briefly, notice that the focal length and distance to the subject are both squared. This means they are a much stronger influence than the aperture.

Aperture, focal length, and distance to the subject all work together to determine the DOF A smaller aperture (larger f/ number) increases it. Moving further from the subject increases it a lot. Using longer focal length lenses decreases it a lot.

It is said that wide angle lenses have greater DOF

Conventional wisdom is that wide angle lenses have more DOF than telephoto lenses. Actually, no. But practically, yes.

The discrepancy is how we tend to use them. We shoot with a long lens and decide there is not enough DOF. So we put on a wide lens and shoot the scene from the same position. DOF increases a lot. But the field of view has also expanded, so we have a much wider shot. If you were to walk up to the subject to make the image size field the same as before, the DOF would be the same. Thank you physics.

But in practice, yes, using a wide angle lens usually gives us a great DOF because we usually shoot from relatively far away.

Hyperfocal distance

One “trick” that has been used for a long time and that simplifies getting maximum DOF is to know about hyperfocal distance. The hyperfocal distance is an optimum point where everything from infinity to a point near the camera is in acceptable focus. Seems too good to be true, but it is just physics again.

The technique is getting harder to determine now and is probably falling into disuse. Way back we tended to shoot prime (non-zoom) lenses and they had focusing scales. For a given aperture, all you had to do was adjust the lens so the distant aperture number was at infinity. You were now focused at the hyperfocal distance. Everything from the near focus scale mark to infinity is in acceptable focus. It was easy and very useful.

Now, though, zoom lenses have gotten very good and most of us use them. The problem is that they are optically complex and do not focus the same. They cannot, by their design, provide us with focus scales.

What to do? A pretty good solution is called the double the distance method. There is some estimating (e.g. guessing) and approximations involved, but it is better than a lot of alternatives.

Say you want to have a flower about 5 feet away in focus and have everything in focus all the way to infinity. Focus at about 10 feet. Choose a “suitable” aperture, probably around f/11 to f/16. I told you there was guessing. But by doing this, the field from about 5 feet to about infinity will be sharp. Check it in your viewfinder. Adjust if necessary. The hyperfocal point is about 1/3 of the way from the closest point you want sharp to infinity. You have to estimate it.

Making some educated guesses based on knowledge of what’s going on is better than a random guess based on no knowledge.

Just do it

Photography and video production are probably the most technical of the arts. We are constrained by the physics of the sensors and materials, the properties of the optical systems and lens design, and the effects that can be created by these. Compounding these is the reality that we are typically imaging real subjects with all their flaws and constraints. It’s wonderful!

Don’t get caught up in the math or the technical details unless you are a nerd that really likes that. It is seldom necessary for making good photographs. I just put the DOF formula in to show you it is based on science, not some mystical mumbo jumbo. I would never use it in the field.

Learn that depth of field is a balance between the aperture, the lens focal length, and the distance to the subject. Experiment with them. Get a feel of how they relate and practice getting the results you want. It is harder to describe than it is to do.

Today’s image

This image demonstrates intentional shallow depth of field. I wanted the foreground and background definitely blurred, but still recognizable. The effect was achieved with a moderate aperture, f/11, and a short telephoto of 70mm close to the subject. Remember, increasing the focal length and decreasing the subject distance both strongly reduce DOF.

Experiment more. Make the use of your equipment to achieve your intentions automatic.