Don't Be So Literal (The Art Of The Blur)!

Photography has always been a balance of science and art. There are those who are more interested in the equipment than getting out and photographing and those who could care less about the gear and only want to create art. I believe the magic happens when one is familiar enough with their equipment that they can use it in a creative way, in any moment, to help expand their creative vision.

One of the most powerful compositional techniques is to minimize the elements in the frame. Just because the sky exists in a landscape, doesn't mean it needs to be included. When photographing a tree, don't always assume that the whole tree has to be in included. Less is more, and a minimalist composition often creates significantly stronger images.

It's important to constantly push your creative limits. When you've hit the proverbial brick wall, try a technique that you think can't possibly work. The in-camera blurring technique is nothing new to the art of photography, but I first stumbled across the technique when I was cruising around backcountry roads in the winter. The light was a beautiful bright overcast, and I was planning on photographing some snowy landscapes. All of a sudden the weather changed and I was presented with a whiteout. Surely it was time to go home, or was it? The decision to stay and keep photographing was a day that helped shape my photographic vision and style. Unsure of what the outcome was going to be, I set the camera to a slow shutter speed, looked for a nice set of trees and moved the camera up/down as I pressed the shutter. The result blew me away, and to this day I truly enjoy using this technique.

Since this "day of the blur", I have applied the technique to many different types of subjects including grasses, reeds, bushes and marshes/swamps. The results can be spectacular. However, there is an art to the blur technique, and it doesn't just include waving your camera around (although that might produce some other fantastic result). The following is a list of tips to help you begin your blurring adventures:

1) You'll need to use an appropriately slow shutter speed. The speed will depend on the scene, subject, how much light there is, how fast you move the camera and how large an area you need to cover. A good starting point is about 1/20 to 1/4 second. If you are using a mirrorless camera that has an electronic shutter, you will be able to see, in real-time, how blurred the image will be.

2) Make sure you have focus! As bizarre as this sounds, if the subject that you're blurring isn't in focus, your result will just look like a blurred, out of focus image. Take some shots with the subject out of focus to see what I mean.

3) The composition also matters. You want to include as much of the subject but not too much that the image becomes weak. You can use a long or short lens to frame as many trees as will work in your composition. Your camera orientation (horizontal or vertical) will depend on the lens you use and how large the area you want to blur is.

4) Typically you will move the camera in an up or down motion but sometimes both up and down or even a random pattern works! 

5) When you blur a subject, you will end up blending the colour of the different portions of the subject as well. For example, if you are blurring a tree with grass around it, you'll find that some of the green grass will start blending with the brown or white tree trunk and the leaf colours (if any). Note which colour you want most dominant, and begin your blurring accordingly. If you slow down over a particular area, that colour will become more prominent. 

6) The scene you are blurring doesn't always have to be pretty. Look for bold lines and shapes that will create visual interest. Dead trees and hardly any colour can make for excellent images.

7) Most of the time you'll need to do some basic post processing to the blur images. The reason being that the highlights and shadows mix and become averaged out, causing the image to look flat. Therefore, you'll want to ensure that your black and white points are set to taste. You’ll probably also need to add some vibrance or saturation. Keep in mind that your image post processing doesn't need to be technically correct. This is just a guideline as it's ultimately the art we are after.

There are other techniques to create surreal and dreamlike images which I will write about in future articles. The bottom line is that photography is an art just like any other medium. Nobody should dictate how we use our tools. Leaving the viewer to use their imagination to interpret your images can be a more immersive experience for them and create a longer-lasting connection with your art.

Free 1.4x And 2x Teleconverters For Lumix Users!

I had a feeling that title would grab your attention. However, I’m not pulling your leg, I’m being totally serious. If you're saying “But Panasonic doesn't make teleconverters for their Lumix lenses!”, you would be completely right. However, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that both of the teleconverters are probably already in your bag!

For those who may not be familiar with what a teleconverter is, think of it as a lens extender that turns your lens into a longer lens. The two most common teleconverter strengths are 1.4x and 2x. If you were using a telephoto lens that was 300mm f4, using the 2x you would end up with a 600mm f8. You can see that although your lens is now effectively twice as long, you've also lost two stops of light. Losing two stops (on a 2x) will really slow your shutter speed down, requiring you to raise your ISO higher than you might want. The other not so obvious issue is that the majority of cameras can't focus when f8 becomes the max aperture. In addition, quality teleconverters are not cheap and they take up more weight and bulk in your bag.

For years there has been a feature on many Lumix cameras called “Ex Tele. Conv.” (ETC). The feature is found in the Rec (red camera) tab in the menu. To enable it simply set “Ex Tele. Conv.” to “Teleconv”. The manual isn’t particularly clear and doesn't give this amazing feature enough attention. Therefore, I’ll explain what it is, why you’ll probably want to use it for certain situations and why it’s as close to a free lunch as you’re going to get!

ETC mode is not digital zoom. It is purely optical. Some cameras have a separate digital zoom feature, which I suggest you never use, as the quality is usually horrible at best. The only caveat to ETC mode is that you can't shoot RAW but only JPGs. Although I'm a RAW shooter, you'll soon read why I sometimes shoot JPG!

ETC works by masking the sensor. Think of this as the camera putting a piece of tape on part of the sensor and leaving just the centre exposed. There is no interpolation or image degradation happening. The JPG resolution setting will determine the amount of masking. More masking means a longer effective focal length (larger teleconverter power).  On the GX8, if the JPG resolution is set to Medium (10 megapixels), you'll effectively be using a 1.4x teleconverter. If you set the resolution to Small (5 megapixels), you'll be using a 2x teleconverter. Since you can still use the Fine compression setting, 5 and 10 megapixel images are great for a number of applications. For example, either of these will be more than adequate for anything online and if you print your images, even a high-quality 5 megapixel JPG can easily print to 11x14” or larger (depending on quality of lens, focus, shutter speed, ISO, etc). When I first discovered ETC mode, you could say I was somewhat thrilled that I was able to turn my Lumix/Leica 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens into a 400-1,600mm f4-6.3 lens (2x due to the m4/3 crop and then 2x for the ETC mode) that autofocuses, or the Leica/Lumix 45mm f2.8 macro lens into a 90mm f2.8 and in Small JPG mode provides 2:1 macro magnification!

However, unlike using an external teleconverter the main benefits include:

1)     You won't lose any image quality as you're not adding additional glass.

2)     You don't lose light so your shutter speed can stay the same

3)     Whether you shoot with the medium or small JPG resolution, your max aperture will never change, nor will the weight and bulk in your camera bag!

4)     You can use any lens with Ex Tele mode, from fisheye to super telephoto, which is impossible with an external teleconverter.

A benefit of ETC mode that is identical to an external teleconverter is that the minimum focusing distance of the lens remains the same, which is great as you'll get more magnification from your lenses for closer subjects which can also allow for more working distance.

Some of you may be wondering why not just shoot RAW and crop in post processing. The following is a list of reasons why ETC mode might make more sense:

1)     Your camera is metering for only the area the lens sees, not the whole sensor. This will most likely give you a more accurate meter.

2)     Since you are only focusing on what the lens sees, it'll be easier to focus on your subject.

3)     Your camera buffer won't fill up as fast with continuous shutter since the JPGs are 1/3 to 1/4 smaller than a RAW file.

4)     You'll get significantly more images per memory card. Although memory is cheap these days, getting more images on a card during certain shooting situations might be useful.

5)     Due to the masking, the sensor will only see the middle, or sharpest part of a lens.

6)     You can make-up an extra stop or two to keep your shutter speed faster. For example, let's look at the Leica/Lumix 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens to achieve a faster shutter speed. Instead of shooting the lens at 400mm f/6.3, you can enable ETC mode, set your JPG resolution to Small (2x teleconverter) and shoot the lens at 200mm f/5.1. You'll now be shooting with a 400mm f/5.1 lens with a shutter speed just under one-stop faster which can make or break a sharp shot in low-light.

7)     You don't need to physically change lenses which saves time and also keeps more dust off of the sensor.

A few tips and tricks include:

1)     You can assign the ETC mode to a custom function button so that it's always quickly accessible.

2)     Considering your lens will now effectively be either 1.4x or 2x longer, you have to treat it as a longer lens and make sure you use appropriate settings (shutter speed, image stabilization, etc).

3)     ETC mode can also be used for video.

So as you can see, ETC is pretty much a free lunch with some amazing dessert. The only tradeoff is that you have to shoot JPGs, which might be fine for some and unacceptable for others. Being a RAW shooter, I'm now shooting 90% RAW and 10% JPG.


My Lens Choices and How I Use Them

With such a wide range of lenses available for camera systems these days, it can be difficult to choose the ones that work best for you. Too frequently I see questions by new photographers asking which lens is the best choice for landscapes or wildlife, for example. Just as frequently, I see answers to those questions that suggest using a wide angle lens for landscape and a super telephoto lens for wildlife.   

When asked to critique photographs, I often find that the photographers had a great vision of what story they wanted their photo to tell. However, the incorrect lens was often chosen and unfortunately reduced the impact of the final image. For many of the images the photographer used a lens wider than necessary and there was no obvious subject of interest, causing the eye to just wander around the image. It's worth noting that the wider a lens is, the more difficult it can be to create a strong composition.  

Depending on the diversity of your photographic subjects, you may be able to use only one lens. Being a fine art photographer who shoots landscape, wildlife, abandoned places and abstract types of images, I regularly use a wide range of lenses. I am shooting with the Panasonic Lumix camera system and my widest angle lens is 14mm and my longest 800mm (both 35mm equivalent).   

Below is a list of lenses I use and a brief description of how I generally use them. These lenses are very sharp autofocus (except the manual focus Venus 60mm macro) very quickly. I hope that after reading these you may perhaps be inspired to try some of your lenses for other subjects:  

Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4 (14-28mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This lens is very wide. It can be difficult making strong compositions with such a wide-angle lens. It is very important to pay attention to foreground, mid and background in your scene. I use this lens almost exclusively for night photography and when I really need toexaggerate foreground objects. This makes a scene seem vast and can create a very impressive dynamic scene.  

Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 (24-70mm equivalent on 35mm)  

For many people this lens is their go-to lens. For me personally it is more of my general purpose lens. It's not wide enough or long enough for a lot of my subject matter. Especially now since the m43 equipment is so light, I'll usually bring it along with all of my other lenses because it is incredibly sharp and is useful in many situations.  

Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 (70-200mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This is definitely one of my go-to lenses. I often use it to exclude elements from a scene to create more of an intimate landscape. It's a great focal range and the lens focuses as close as 1ft????? Which is great for close-up work. The addition of extension tubes can make this lens great for insects and smaller subjects as well. Along with the 100-400mm lens, this is used a lot for my abstract photography. The dual image stabilization support for this lens makes it great for great deal of subjects and lower light shooting.   

Lumix / Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 (30mm equivalent on 35mm)    

I use this lens for night photography and for macro with extension tubes. The lens is fairly wide-angle with a large aperture so it works well for shots of the night sky. If paired with extension tubes (I use the Kenko brand), it works as a very capable macro setup. Depending on the amount of extension tubes used, you can get more than 1:1 macro. If you add too many tubes you won't be able to focus on your subject as it will literally be touching the front of your lens.  

Lumix / Leica DG Elmarit 45mm f2.8 macro (90mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This is my Panasonic macro lens of choice. It offers greater working distance than the 30mm macro lens and is also a Leica lens. Although this lens also works very well for subjects focused at a distance (not all macro lenses do), I pretty much dedicate it to macro. Fantastic dual image stabilization allows me to shoot macro handheld in a pinch which I would never really have done. However, I will still use a tripod 99% of the time unless photographing moving insects.   

Lumix / Leica DG Vario Elmar 100-400mm f/4 - 6.3 (200-800mm equivalent on 35mm)  

I absolutely love this lens. I not only use it for wildlife but also for situations where I want extremely shallow depth of field or where I can't get close enough to the subject. This lens can focus as close as five feet across the whole zoom range, which is incredible and allows for a lot of close-up opportunities. Since there is also hardly any depth of field at 400mm (800mm equivalent), sometimes I'll focus stack to obtain a bit more depth of field. It is critical to use a good tripod or have the lens slightly weight dampened as a mild breeze is enough to cause camera / lens shake at this magnification. Slower shutter speeds will be more affected by this. Consider using a small beanbag or your hand to help control any vibration. Aside from using it for wildlife, I use it a lot to create abstract images since I can isolate subjects extremely well.   

Venus 60mm f/2.8 (120mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This is a vey sharp specialty macro lens that provides 2:1 magnification without the need for extension tubes. It also focuses to infinity. Unlike my Leica 45mm macro, I only use this lens for macro. It is a completely manual lens with no image stabilization or auto focus and it doesn't relay any information to the camera. This is also the only lens I use a (high quality) UV protective filter on as at macro ranges the lens elements retract into the lens barrel at various magnification levels.