Taku’s tips are designed to get you up-and-running in a matter of minutes so you can start taking photos sooner.

I see spots!

You see them everywhere: on the window, on your desk, and maybe even on your favourite coffee mug. You may never think twice about them but when it comes to photography, you’d better care a lot more about these spots.

 

Spots, or sensor dust, or whatever you want to call it, are notorious little fellas that wreak havoc on your editing workflow. They may be easy to get rid of but when they attack your photos by the tens and hundreds, you’re often left defeated…not to mention left with unusable photos.

Where do these spots/sensor dust come from?

Spots or sensor dust are small dust particles that are on your digital camera sensor. But how do they get there you ask? Dust particles can travel to your digital camera sensor in one of many ways—but most commonly by way of changing lenses. When you change lenses on a dSLR, you are exposing your camera’s mirror and sensor behind this mirror, to the natural environment. You may not see the small particles floating in the air travel from point A to point B, but they are there all over the place and will eventually get in behind the mirror and on to the sensor.

Here’s just some of many ways in which dust can travel to your sensor:

  • Leave the lens off for an extended period of time, exposing the inside of your camera to the environment.
  • You change lenses in a windy environment, or in an unprotected area.
  • You place your camera with the opening facing upward, allowing dust particles to easily make their way down inside your camera.
  • When zooming your telephoto lenses in and out, this “breathing” motion can push dust particles inside.

What do these spots do?

As these dust particles rest on your sensor, they will be imaged on to every single picture you take. Some may be visibly large on your photos, often seen as a dark spot. Furthermore, they will appear in the exact same spot in each of your photos since they do not typically move on the sensor. If they happen to be in solid coloured areas of your photo, then it’s much easier to remove in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop, but when they conveniently appear in an area with lots of detail, then this may affect your workflow quite a bit.

Many spots can be seen here, all caused by sensor dust and other foreign particles on the sensor.

How do you get rid of these spots?

If you only have a few of them on your photo, then you can easily clone them out in Lightroom or Photoshop using the clone stamp tool, or the healing brush tool. If they happen to be in an area with lots of detail, you will need to carefully fix this within Photoshop.

Another example of a photo with lots of sensor dust, yielding in dark spots on the image.

Dust spots often just make a small portion of your image darker. If fixing the details is not an option (although this is the best option), you can try and lighten the darkened area using curves or levels and masking tools, to blend them with the surroundings. This is not an ideal solution, but still can be done in certain scenarios.

Cleaning the sensor dust in Lightroom with the clone brush or healing brush tool.

Can I see these spots in my viewfinder?

Dust particles that are on your sensor cannot be seen on the viewfinder. However, dust particles that may be on the mirror of your dSLR may be visible in the viewfinder. These particles do not affect the image itself though, since the mirror moves out of the way of the sensor when you press the shutter button.

Dust on the lens element

It is entirely possible that you have dust particles on the front and/or back of your lens element. In either case, you may see these in the viewfinder as well, and they will appear as dark spots on your image as well.

Why do the dots look slightly different from each other?

Some sensor dust may look slightly darker and some may look more defined than others. This all depends on what your aperture was set to. Generally speaking the smaller your aperture (larger f-number), the darker and more defined your sensor dust will appear in your image. Dust particles on your lens element may yield much larger darker areas in your photos than a dust particle on your sensor.

A 100% crop from the previous image, showing you how much sensor dust and particles affect the image. This is a really dirty sensor and should be cleaned immediately.

I see spots too! So now what?

If these spots are driving you up the wall, you will need to clean the sensor in your digital camera. While some may not mind this task, others may shy away from doing anything inside their cameras, which is completely understandable.

I would only recommend you clean the sensor yourself if you know what you are doing!

Otherwise, take your camera to an authorized camera store or your manufacturer’s head office to get the sensor cleaned (provided they do sensor cleaning for the public). Most manufacturer’s head offices will have a customer service desk, and may charge a small fee for sensor cleaning.

Another example of an image created with a dirty sensor.

If you’re ok with having to clean the spots in Lightroom or Photoshop, then you can continue to do that. But keep in mind that it can get very time consuming and tedious if you find a lot of sensor dust on your image.

Cleaning the image in Adobe Lightroom is what I normally do.

I have had instances where there were so many small dust particles on the sensor that there were just way too many spots on my image to clean. It pretty much made the image(s) unusable.

My sensor is now clean, how do I keep it clean?

Keeping your sensor clean means always being conscious of what it is being exposed to. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • When you change lenses on your camera, be sure to turn off the camera first to eliminate any electrical currents from attracting dust.
  • When removing your lens, do so in an appropriate environment. ie. not windy, dusty, or rainy. If you’re out in the open then change lenses in as sheltered area as possible, even if this is inside your camera bag.
  • When removing your lens, face your camera down so the opening is faced towards the ground. This prevents dust from falling down into your camera. Attach your lens in the same way.
  • If possible, don’t keep standing and change lenses as you risk dropping your lens on to the ground. I learned this the hard way! If you have a camera bag, place it on the ground, and put your camera in the bag and change lenses inside the bag.
  • Always use your lens hood to protect the lens on your camera and put the lens cap and rear lens cap on the lens you’re not using.

I have a mirrorless camera, does this mean I don’t get spots?

No, you are still immune to sensor dust as your mirrorless camera still has a sensor inside.

In fact, since mirrorless cameras doesn’t have a mirror in front of it, there is a greater chance of getting dust on the sensor. You should be extra careful when you change lenses.

I have a sensor cleaning mode in my camera. Does this work?

This function on your camera is intended to do just this—to remove any sensor dust. However, it can only do so much. By introducing tiny vibrations or shaking the sensor, it attempts to remove sensor dust off the sensor and onto a catch/trap at the bottom of your camera. There is no guarantee all dust will fall off from this method though. Moreover, the dust catch/trap will eventually need to be cleaned if too much dust is collected.

What about an air blower?

If you have a manual air blower like the air blower that I have, I highly recommend using this first to remove any dust particles from your sensor. This is the first method that I use when I need to clean my sensor as it often helps to remove a large majority of the dust that I get on my sensor—and I get a lot!

Using the air blower, I gently blow air to the sensor, cleaning it of dust particles.

Here’s what I do whenever I use the manual blower.

  • Face the camera down so you are looking at the back of the camera.
  • Lift the mirror through your camera’s menu.
  • Squeeze the air blower away from the sensor a few times to remove any dust on/in the blower itself.
  • With the blower about 3-4cm away from the sensor, use the blower to blow air into the sensor to remove any dust particles. Be careful not to touch the sensor or the mirror with the tip of the blower.
  • If you see dust on the sensor, you can target the dust particles too.
  • Try to do this relatively quickly as you don’t want to expose the sensor to the environment for too long. If you have the mirror lifted for too long, the camera may automatically shut it back down to conserve battery power.

Never use a compressed air canister, as you have the potential of blowing chemicals directly on to the sensor.


If you have any additional tips or techniques to remove sensor dust from your images, or have stories of your own, please feel free to share them in the comments below!

Sunset Photography Flight

Photographing in low light scenarios like a sunrise or sunset may be difficult enough, so what happens when you try and photograph from an airplane during a sunset flight over Toronto?

I found this out in my last flight over the downtown core with FlyGTA. I’ve received a number of questions on what my settings were when I shot certain photos so I hope to go through all of them in this post. If you have additional questions, please feel free to comment on this post below.

Things to Consider

Time of Day

Time of day will dictate how much light you have going to your sensor. Taking photos from an airplane will be much easier when you have more light available, so consider this when you decide on when to go.

CN Tower and Roger’s Centre. ISO 200, 1/400 sec., f/8.0.

Flying over the city during the day (above) provides enough light for a fast shutter speed. In contrast, shooting in the evening (below) will require a higher ISO and/or shallower depth of field to achieve the same shutter speed.

The CN Tower and city from above. ISO 800, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

My last flight was supposed to be a flight over the downtown core shortly before the sun was to set below the horizon. However due to various circumstances, our flight time got pushed back and we ended up flying well past this time.

The airplane we took for the sunset flight over the city.

The sun had already set a while before we went up in the air, making our flight more of a blue-hour session. This may make things more difficult, but it also makes things more interesting. Why? Because at a certain point in the evening, the city lights will have turned on, making the landscape even more colourful to shoot.

The Bloor viaduct lights up in purple down below. ISO 800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

Lenses

I wondered about this too before my first flight, since I had no idea how close we would be to any buildings, the CN Tower, or anything else.

I opted to bring my 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, and my 20mm f/1.8 wide angle lens in case I wanted to capture the huge expanse of land you get to see while you’re up there. During another flight, I took with me my 70-200mm f/2.8, which enables me to capture objects further away, or closer objects in more detail.

The Toronto FC played against the Ottawa Redbacks at the BMO Field seen above. ISO 800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

For a sunset flight, you’ll want a fast lens (lower f-number) since you will need to open up your aperture to get in as much light as possible. Keep in mind though, that if you want an entire building in focus from the top to somewhere near the ground, you’ll probably want to use a higher f-stop like f/8 or f/10, forcing you to boost your ISO higher than you may want.

20mm f/1.8

Great lens if you want to capture the large expanse of land or water that you can see from above. Keep in mind since this covers a wide angle, you will more than likely catch the wing in your photo too. If that’s your intention, that’s fine—otherwise you’ll need to crop it out afterwards. With a wide angle lens, objects will be much smaller in your photo as well.

The west shores of Toronto with Ontario place seen at the bottom of the image. ISO 800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

24-70mm f/2.8

This is probably the optimal lens to use in this case as it’s the most versatile. You have plenty of room with your zoom, and it’s a fast lens at f/2.8. If it’s only one lens you carry on, I would recommend this lens.

Swimming pool in the beaches. ISO 800, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

70-200mm f/2.8

This is another possible lens to use, but it’s very limiting because you see everything so close up. Use this if you’re after the details of the city in the sunset. For me, I would find it too limiting within a city environment, which is why I left it out of my bag during my sunset shoot. When I flew over a wide expanse of farmland and water, however, I found this lens to be more useful.

A pool sits in the middle of greenery. ISO 400, 1/400 sec., f/9.0.

Camera Settings

Camera settings will vary depending on the available light. As a general guideline though, for a sunset flight over the city, you’ll need to keep your ISO high and shutter speed fairly fast.

The best way to figure this out is to see the photos themselves. Let’s take a look at the following photos and settings to see what happened.

The downtown core. ISO800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

With a shutter speed of 1/80sec. you can see that everything is slightly blurred—take a look at the Sun Life Financial lettering. The airplane was moving so fast that a shutter speed of 1/80sec. wasn’t fast enough to freeze the moment.

To compensate for this, I should have raised my shutter speed to something like 1/200 or even faster. But if I did that, I would have to change my ISO or aperture to compensate for the lack of light coming in from the faster shutter speed.

During my flight, I didn’t change my ISO value of 800 simply because it would have taken me too long to change the value back and forth depending on my scene. I paid the price because of this, as you can see.

What could I have done? I could have set my camera to auto ISO to a maximum value of 800 or even 1600. Then with my shooting mode set to shutter priority and shutter speed to about 1/200, my aperture and ISO values would be constantly changing depending on the scene in front of me. I would have achieved better results this way.

Many of these photos were still brightened up in Lightroom afterwards to keep the shadows from being too dark.

Aura stands tall. ISO 800, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

This photo above was taken at a shutter speed of around 1/125sec. which was fast enough to get a relatively sharp subject. Depending on if the plane is moving fast or if it’s flying on a curve, you can still get away with a relatively slower shutter speed. To minimize the risk though, I’d stick with a shutter speed of about 1/200 at the very least.

Composition

You can have a lot of fun with composition inside an airplane. It’s not something you normally see, so take advantage of the fact that you’re there and use what is there to your advantage.

Taking photos through the window.

Shooting without a window between our subject and lens would be the ideal circumstance since windows will lower the light coming in, have scratches that may get in the way, and almost certainly will produce reflections in the evening. However in this case, we had to manage with what we were given.

Frame your subject using the window.

Our first instinct is to shoot out the window to get a clear shot of the outdoors. However, an equally pleasing composition might be if you were to include the window in your photo, which evokes a feeling of being right there inside the plane. Try it out next time and you’ll see.

Enjoying the sunset. Taken with the 20mm f/1.8.

Someone else in the plane with you? Feel free to use them as a subject in your photo (granted they are OK with it). A wider lens will enable you to get everybody in the plane.

Taking a photo of the CN Tower on your mobile phone.

Taking a picture of them as they take a picture of the outside can be interesting if creatively done—just remember to expose for the brightest part of the subject, which in this case was the screen on the phone she was using to take the picture outside.

Champagne and flying!

Or if you’re celebrating a special moment, don’t forget to capture that with the city in the backdrop.

Focus on the foreground element while keeping the background blurred but still recognizable.

Sometimes you have no choice but to include the wing, or part of the wing in your photo. If that’s the case, try focusing on the wing and have something interesting in the background. In the photo above, although the CN Tower and Rogers Centre are blurred, you’re still able to recognize the two iconic Toronto structures.

The pilot and his sunglasses.

And finally, you can’t forget about the pilot and dashboard. The latter lights up at night, offering a great subject matter as well. In the photo above, I let the dashboard lights and sunset lights take centre stage while keeping everything else darker.

The CN Tower divides the screen.

There’s lots of opportunities for creativity when you’re up there even though the light may be dim. Be mindful of your settings and be creative. If you have any other questions, or want to offer some more creative ideas, please feel free to comment below and let me know your experiences with a sunset photography session inside an airplane.

The Real Aurora Borealis

The Real Aurora Borealis

Viewing photos of the Aurora Borealis can be quite exciting with all of its colours. If you think about it, it’s hard to believe those vibrant curtains of light flow and dance right in front of you. Or do they?

The Real Aurora Borealis

For many of us—myself included—what you see in these photos is not what you see in real life. Our eyes are often not sensitive enough to see the colours of the Northern Lights so many of us just see white in the sky. On overcast days, you can easily mistaken these for clouds.

The Aurora Borealis at Cassidy Point.

The Aurora Borealis at Cassidy Point.

To understand why this happens, we need to understand how our eyes work.

Our eyes are comprised of two photoreceptor cells: the rod and cone. The rod is responsible for sending low light information to our brains, and do not detect colour. The cone is responsible for detecting colour and higher light levels in the scene. If what you’re looking at isn’t very bright, the cone photoreceptor cell doesn’t get activated, leaving you with information from only the rod photoreceptor cells. This would explain why I only saw colour in certain situations—when the Aurora Borealis was really bright. The photos below will show you what I typically saw with my eyes, compared to what my camera captured with a long exposure.

The Aurora Borealis edited in Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis edited in Adobe Lightroom.

Compare the above photo with the one below, which is more like what I saw with my own eyes. Mind you the long exposure of the camera makes it look a little more sensational than it really was as well since the camera picks up the movement of the lights, whereas the eye can only see the lights in one place at a time.

The Aurora Borealis closer to what I saw with my own eyes.

The Aurora Borealis closer to what I saw with my own eyes.

Here’s one more example:

The Aurora Borealis edited with Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis edited with Adobe Lightroom.

The colours above look great, but here’s what I really saw with my own eyes:

The Aurora Borealis as seen with my eyes.

The Aurora Borealis as seen with my eyes.

The more vibrant the Aurora Borealis, the better chance you will have of actually seeing colour in the night sky.

I only found out about this shortly before my trip to Yellowknife, so I wasn’t completely dumbfounded during my first sighting of the Aurora Borealis. Through most evenings though, I was able to discern a hint of green, yellow, purple, blue, and even red.

The vibrant colours of the Aurora Borealis

The vibrant colours of the Aurora Borealis.

Each evening always started with trying to spot a white cloud-like object that would move in the sky. If I thought it may be the Northern Lights, I would take a picture of it to confirm. If the photo on the back of my camera showed any colour, then I knew the magic had started. If objects in the sky turned out white on my camera screen, then I knew that they were simply clouds.

A test photo to see if the Aurora Borealis was showing.

A test photo to see if the Aurora Borealis was showing reveals nothing but white clouds.

What you see, however, all depends on the sensitivity of your eyes. I spoke with some people who said they could see all of the colours with their bare eyes; I’m quite jealous of their eye sensitivity. It would be quite spectacular to be able to see colours like this with your eyes.

What About Photoshop?

No doubt many of the photos you see on the internet have been edited in one way or another, with photos of the Aurora Borealis being no exception to this.

I mention this because the colours that we see in these photos are largely dependent on how the photographer chooses to edit their photos. With a simple click of the mouse button in Adobe Photoshop, or a slide of the slider in Adobe Lightroom, they can change that bright green you see in the photo to a neon green or a more muted one. Moreover, changing the white balance of the scene can change every colour of the Northern Lights in one fell swoop.

Here's a standard edit of The Aurora Borealis. The blue hue to the sky is created from the sunlight coming in from the horizon.

Here’s a standard edit of The Aurora Borealis. The blue hue to the sky is created from the sunlight coming in from the horizon.

Compare the above photo with the ones below, where all I’ve done was change the white balance in Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis with just a slight change in the white balance changes the overall look and feel of the image.

The Aurora Borealis with just a slight change in the white balance changes the overall look and feel of the image.

The colours can change even more—it all depends on how the photographer feels like editing their photographs of the Aurora Borealis.

The sky has a deeper purple hue to it, with slightly different hues of the Aurora Borealis.

The sky has a deeper purple hue to it, with slightly different hues of the Aurora Borealis.

What does the Aurora Borealis really look like then?

There isn’t just one prescribed set of numbers used by the masses for editing Aurora Borealis photos. When editing my photos, I adopted to using a set of numbers that closely reflected what I remember seeing, even if it was very faint most of the time. These numbers were found to be fairly consistent with how some other photographers edited their Aurora Borealis photos. Hopefully this means we’re representing this wonderful phenomenon more truthfully. I’ve seen many photos where the Aurora Borealis had been over-saturated to the point where I knew that couldn’t be real. I’ve also seen photos that included colours that I’ve never seen before in the night sky. I wonder if that is just because I’ve just never been lucky enough to see them, or if that was just some creative editing by the photographer.

An over-the-top edit of the Aurora Borealis. This is way too saturated to be truthful to reality, in my opinion.

An over-the-top edit of the Aurora Borealis. This is way too saturated to be truthful to reality, in my opinion.

So, what do you think of these Aurora Borealis photos now? Are you surprised by any of this or did you already know these facts about the Aurora Borealis? Let me know what you think about these brilliant display of colours that we all love to see so much, by commenting below.

Toronto Sunrise

Even though I’ve been going out on several Toronto sunrise shoots these past few months, they never bore me. Each one is different and unique in their own way. Even if the skies are clear with no clouds to reflect the sunshine, seeing that first light come up above the horizon is reason enough to wake up at 5am and drive to the lake.

Nikon D800, 1/80 sec., f/22, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/80 sec., f/22, ISO 100, 70mm

The morning I took this Toronto sunrise, I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t the most dramatic of sunrises as the sun just came up with no spectacular showing of colours. There were no clouds to reflect the lights, and the water was surprisingly calm with no swans or ducks. I took a few random shots anyway hoping to get some sort of memory from the day. I’m glad I caught the birds in the sky as that adds a little more to the picture.

A few days later, I came back to this photo only to realize that it was a rather nice looking sunrise picture with the right amount of sun spikes, perfectly positioned behind the trees, emitting that warm sunrise glow. After tweaking some colours and cleaning the image up, I have to say it’s one photo that I’m really happy with.

The takeaway here is that even if you think you didn’t come out with something good on a shoot, don’t discount all of your photos just yet. Wait a few days and let your photos “marinate,” as I mentioned in this previous post. When you see your photos after a few days later, you’ll see them in a new light, so-to-speak, and will appreciate it differently.

 

Composition dilemma

When post-processing a photo, deciding on the proper composition is key in creating the feel of an image. You can evoke different feelings for the viewer based on where the horizon is placed within an image, or where the subject is placed within the frame.

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

This photo is pretty interesting as I could have gone a number of different ways in terms of placing the horizon and placement of the subject.

I decided to place the horizon on the top third of the image because it then allows us to get more intimate with the water by seeing more details of the water. Further, the water in the foreground acts as a guide for our eyes to move towards the paddler. Had I placed the horizon on the bottom third of this picture, like in the image below, I wouldn’t have achieved the same effect.

Placing the paddler directly in the centre of the frame can also change the mood as well. I have her centred which balances things throughout the entire photo. If I placed her one-third from the left edge of the frame, we would get more negative space on the right, allowing our eyes to head directly to the subject.

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Can you feel the difference between the two images above? With the horizon in the bottom third of the photo, we get an open view of the sky, making the entire landscape look more grand and spacious.

There’s not really a right or wrong way about this; it’s just a matter of what you’re trying to achieve in the photo.

The takeaway here is to always be conscious about the cropping of your photo. You may not think about it, but what you include or take away when cropping a photo will make a big difference in how people interpret the image.