room 2c

Nikon's Photo Contest 2012-2013 winners

In a year with a record number of entries—99,339, from 153 different countries and territories—Nikon has announced the winners of its Photo Contest 2012-2013. Understandably, the competition was very definitely Nikon-oriented, with one of its four categories dedicated to the motion snapshot function found in Nikon 1 series cameras (that's the Harry Potter-esque feature that combines stills and video) and a special award for the best photo taken with a NIKKOR lens.

There were three other categories: single photo, photo story comprising a series of two to five images, and a photographic video up to 45 seconds in length.

The judges selected their grand prize winner from a total of 48 first, second, and third placed entries made from the photo, photo story, and photographic video cateogies and three winners from the motion snapshot category. They were looking for the photographer's ability to tell a universal story, diversity, the strength of their message, creativity, and the techniques used.

Elegy of Autumn, by Dina Bova

The Grand Prize was awarded to Dina Bova for her Elegy of Autumn. Chris Rainer, one of the judges, said of it: 'Our Judges loved this image. It tells so many stories. It is at once traditional and respecting of the elders set in a classic living room, yet whimsical with the reference to space travel. It points to our future while honoring our past.'

The winning images will be exhibited in Tokyo from August to September and Osaka between September and October this year.

Red eyes and how to avoid them

The Red Eye phenomenon is something that occurs when you take a picture of someone. If you have a compact camera and you’ve taken a few rolls of pictures, chances are that you have stumbled across the phenomenon, during which the eyes of your subject end up glowing an eerie red glow.

It's easy to avoid, and easy to fix if you failed to avoid it, but  in this article, we'll take a quick look at the science behind red eyes, and the steps you can take to avoid it.

Why does this happen?

If an eye had absorbed all light, then this wouldn’t happen. In fact, if an eye had been theoretically flawless, the red eye effect would not have existed at all. What happens when you see the red eyes on pictures, is that the flash is reflected in someone’s eye. The reflection is red because of all the blood vessels inside the eye:


So… How do we avoid red eyes?

Removing the red eye effect can only be done by changing one of three things: The size of somebody's pupil, or the distance between the flash and the lens. Changing either of these things will reduce or remove the red eyes completely.

1) Turn off the flash.

This is the point most people forget about. Obviously, if you can do without a flash, either by increasing the light in the room, by switching a faster ISO value, or using a faster lens


No flash; no red-eyes. Simple!

2) Move the flash further away from your lens

This is a bit harder with compact cameras, but if you have an SLR, you should definitely get an external flash that connects to the hot shoe of your camera. For one thing, these flashes are a lot more sophisticated than the internal ones, but they are also are significantly further away from the lens. Because of the additional distance, the reflection from the back of your eyes never reaches the lens, and the red-eye effect is reduced or removed:



3) Make the iris smaller.

The final thing you can try is to make people's irises smaller: You may have noticed that the red-eye effect is stronger in low light (it's a little bit obvious; that's the only time you'd be using a flash anyway, right?). The reason for this is that if someone's eyes are adjusted to low light, the aperture of their eyes (their irises) will be large:


However, if there was a way to simply reduce the size of their irises, you'd get much less of a red-eye effect, simply because mot as much light would be able to hit the lens:


So, how do you make someone's eyes smaller? Here's three ways:

You could try to turn on the anti-red-eye function that probably exists on your camera. This function usually sends off a few short flashes, or it will shine some other sharp light into your “victim’s” eyes. This makes their irises smaller, and the problem diminishes.

Turn on more lights. This has the same effect as above, but it also has some other advantages: One, you get more even light, two, depending how sophisticated your camera is, it might fire a less powerful flash, giving a more natural light. Three: you might get away without using a flash altogether.

Make sure your subjects aren’t drunk. Have you ever noticed that if you take a set of photos at a party, how there seem to be more and more occurrences of the red eyes? Not a coincidence. People who start to become intoxicated have slower reactions – this applies to eyes as well. The eyes just won’t contract as quickly, leaving you with red-eyed pictures.

Finally a quick note on compact cameras

Switching to a faster lens on a compact camera is obviously not possible. What few people realise, however, is that almost all compact cameras have lenses that gather much more light when they are fully zoomed out.

In low light, you should therefore consider zooming out and go closer instead of using the zoom to frame your pictures. On an SLR camera, look for a lens with a larger maximum aperture.

Rania Matar's A Girl and Her Room comes to London


Further to my Closer Look at her series back in April, I am, quite honestly, massively excited to hear that Rania Matar is exhibiting her “A Girl and her Room” series in The Mosaic Rooms in London at the start of July.

It’s currently one of my favourite series and, as I’m sure you all know, seeing a series of images exhibited and in print is a totally different experience to looking at them online. I suggest you all pop down there and check this series out whilst it’s in London, unless you’re some kind of terrible person who hates nice things. In that case, I would suggest you just sit in a blank room, staring at the wall or something.

Personally, I can’t wait to see this series, as it has inspired my own personal project and, aside from enjoying the images, I’m hoping for further inspiration from having the opportunity of seeing the images in print.

A Girl and Her Room opens in the Mosaic Rooms on the 1st of July and runs until the 23rd of July.

Sharpening your photos using Unsharp Mask


The Unsharp Mask is an old photography trick that has become available to ‘the common man’ through the introduction of digital editing tools such as Adobe Photoshop.

In this article, I will share with you my knowledge and experience of the Unsharp mask tool in the darkroom, and also a thorough introduction to its digital name brother, the Photoshop USM filter. 

The name

Traditionally, the sharpening process happened by adding a mask to the original negative. This mask was a blurred (unsharp…) version of the negative, hence the name; Unsharp mask. The final result has nothing to do with unsharp; the whole purpose of this technique is to make an image appear sharper than the negative can convey

Digital USM

So – if you have no idea how to sharpen your photos in a dark-room, why should you care about doing so on a computer? Well, because the computer does the exact same thing, and – despite what you would expect – the computer doesn’t do it better than someone competent in the darkroom. However; The computer offers you the option of a quick undo, which will cut down the learning time a lot.

In this writeup, I’ll be focussing (pun intended) on how things are done in Photoshop – The newest version at the time of writing, to be exact. I am aware that Gimp and Paint Shop Pro can do the same things, and if anyone wants to node the specifics for these packages – feel free.

However; If you are serious about photography, you are not going to get around photoshop – PSP and Gimp are good for a lot, but Photoshop is the industry standard, and it is the package I have been using for years and years (illegaly for ages, legally the past two years or so). If you can get your hands on a copy of PS Elements or PS LE, both of theses should have fully functional USM filters built in, and they are not quite as expensive as the all-singing, all-dancing full version.

(Learning time? But isn’t this a simple tool?)

The USM built into digital image manipulation packages is an extremely powerful tool. If you ask me, it is the reason to own Photoshop (well, that, and levels. And Variations. And CMYK separation tools. And colour proofing tools. Ah, never mind), but like all other powerful tools, it also makes it possible to thoroughly fuck up an image.

On what images to use the USM tool.

Always. Seriously. Even if you only apply it lightly, I have yet to see a picture that didn’t benefit from a run through USM. All digital files need USM applied to them. Even if you have a tack-sharp image on a medium format slide, you will need to apply USM after digitising the image. Why? Because you do; Inherent in the digitalisation tools (digital cameras*, scanners, etc) is a loss of apparent sharpness.

Not convinced how much of a difference USM makes? Check out these before and after images…



Digital cameras and USM

If you feel that you are photo-savvy enough to use the USM tool on a regular basis, you should have a close look at your digital camera. Usually, there will be a setting in a menu somewhere that says “sharpness” or “sharpen”. You’ll want to turn this down as much as it’ll go. Why? All consumer / prosumer digital cameras sharpen the images in-camera. Why? Because the average consumer only sees the pictures that come out of their camera, and if those images are soft, they will run to the manufacturer and complain, out of ignorance. Sad, but true.

Professional cameras (Canon EOS D30, D60, Nikon D100 and the higher-end models) don’t compensate as much, and also offer the option to turn the sharpening off altogether. This is A Good Thing, because it leaves the photographer with full control. And photographers are control freaks (especially anally-retentive perfectionist photographers), so that’s sweet.

When to use USM

When working on an image, you probably have a long series of steps that you go through. Myself, I always do all basic editing (image corrections, manipulation etc) first, then I apply USM, and then I handle the colour corrections. Most design professionals will tell you to do the USM last, while most photographers will make up their own rules (being photographers and all…). The order DOES matter, as the USM filter is destructive (kinda like JPEG compression algorithms), and you will notice a difference in behaviour of the other filters and corrections you do. Give it a try, and see what you prefer yourself.

How to apply the USM filter.

Open a file in photoshop – the larger the file, the better (the more data the USM filter has to work with, the better.) When I am working on seriously high-precision project, I will first take the 6-megapixel image from my camera, interpolate it up to about 18 megapixels, then do the editing and unsharp mask, before scaling it back down. It might be superstition, but the results do seem to look a lot more refined.

Right – after opening the file, crop it. Then, go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp mask. You should now see a relatively innocent-looking window with three little sliders, marked A, R and T. Amount; Radius, and Threshold.

Let’s start with the last one first. Threshold. I usually leave this on 0, and so can you, most of the time. However, if you have an image with large amounts of noise (esp. if you are working with digital files that have been made a lot brighter, or taken on a high digital ISO value), you might want to set this to somewhere between 1-5. This also prevents small details from being accentuated. On a portrait, for example, using a high threshold might make skin look smoother (than if you didn’t set the threshold), but the hair of the model will not come out as sharp as if you didn’t set a threshold. As I said; I usually leave this on 0, but if you ever need it; Now you know what it does.

The radius is a sneaky thing. In general, the more pixels the picture has, the larger the radius. You’ll want to get sharp images, but not overly so. On a 6 megapixel image, I usually set the radius between 3 and 6 – but it all depends on what you want and need. Experiment. Also, if the image is more blurry than normal, you’ll want a higher radius. If your image is sharper than normal (i.e has already been sharpened in your camera), you might want to use less. To find how to set the radius, set the amount to 100 %, the Threshold to 0, and experiment. Then, set the threshold, and see if you are still happy with the image. Then tweak the amount:

The amount of USM applied is a function of the threshold and the radius (see below). This is usually the last slider you set. In general, the amount should be between 50 – 150 per cent.

When you are happy with the way the image looks, press ‘OK’, and the whole image is processed. Never – EVER – run USM on an image twice. Wanna know why? Try, and you’ll see. It just looks horrible.

For starting values of the USM filter for different uses, try the ones suggested by PhotographyJam:

Subject Amount Radius Threshold
Soft subjects 150 1 10
Portraits 75 2 3
Moderate sharpening 225 0.5 0
Maximum sharpening 65 4 3
All-purpose sharpening 85 1 4
preparing for Web 400 0.3 0

Advanced use of USM

Right, now you know how to use the basics of USM, but what else can you do with this tool? Lots. For one thing, you can make a ‘fake’ idea of depth of field: Make a loose selection around the items you want to be in your virtual DOF. Then, ‘feather’ the selection a great deal (selection -> feather). If you are working on full-size files, somewhere between 20 and 60 px feather should do it. Then, apply an USM mask. This sharpens the parts of the image you selected, while leaving the non-selected portions intact. This looks a lot more natural than blurring everything else in the image.

Variable USM: every now and then, you’ll find that an image that has USM applied looks good on one side, but not on another. Hit undo (undo the USM), and duplicate the layer you are trying to USM. Then apply the USM to your new layer. Make a layer mask, and put a gradient fill in this layer mask (or use the same feather technique as above). This way, a portion of your layer will become translucent, but your original layer will still show through. This offers the illusion of a partially implemented USM, which looks pretty damn funky.

Manual USM

Remember what we said about photographers being control freaks? Well, here goes nothing: If you want to manually do an USM filter on your images (either to learn and understand how it works, or for full control), here is a quick and dirty way on how to do it. I am not going into details here – if you are pedantic enough to want to try this, you are probably able to work out how to implement every step, too!

  • Make sure your image has a contrast you like. Adjust levels and colours.
  • Duplicate your image into a new layer, two times (the ‘background’ layer will be your backup and reference, so you can see the changes by hiding the top layers)
  • Blur the top layer a bit (1.5 – 10 px, depending on resolution. 3 is usually a good start)
  • Lower the brightness and contrast (approx 25 should do it).
  • Subtract this image from your original (Image – Apply image – set source to original, and mode to subtract). This should leave uou with just the unsharp mask.
  • Move the unsharp mask layer to the top.
  • Invert the unsharp mask layer.
  • Set the channel mode of the unsharp mask layer to multiply.
  • Merge layers.
  • Fix levels / brightness.
  • Congratulations.

The strength of the manual mask can be controlled through the amount of blur, the contrast of the layer, and the opacity of the layer. You get an infinite number of toys to play with here – enjoy!

If anything still is unclear (pun intended), feel free to email me!

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