Variable or Solid Neutral Density?

Today’s Question: I will be heading to the Smokey Mountain National park in late October and wanted to find out more about Variable Neutral Density (ND) filters. Originally I was thinking of getting a big stopper but then thought a variable ND with polarizer might be a much better choice. It looks less cumbersome to use and will also allow me to keep a lens shade attached.  What are your  thoughts or preferences about this?  Up until know most of my filter use has been confined to a Circular Polarizer and while I would like to keep things simple, I can really see the opportunities a strong variable ND filter can provide.

Tim’s Quick Answer: Variable neutral density filters offer considerable flexibility, and the option for a built-in circular polarizer filter only adds potential value. That said, my personal preference is to use a solid neutral density filter, because I find a solid rather than variable filters provide a more streamlined workflow. And I’m a huge fan of strong neutral density filters in terms of what they enable for creative effects.

More Detail: Due to the nature of variable neutral density filters, it can be a bit of a challenge to achieve a precise density value, which means it can be a bit of a challenge to find the right exposure settings. A little more trial-and-error tends to be required in order to find the right exposure settings based on the specific rotational position of the variable neutral density filter, and light angles play a role in this regard as well.

Because of this issue, as much as there is a tremendous potential benefit with variable neutral density filters, I prefer to use solid neutral density filters. When combined with an adjustment to the ISO setting on your camera, just one or two solid neutral density filters can provide great flexibility with a more streamlined workflow.

I discussed my specific approach to working with a solid neutral density filter in the July 2015 issue of Pixology magazine (http://www.pixologymag.com). The key is that with a solid neutral density filter you can simply establish your initial exposure settings, then add the filter and apply an adjustment to the exposure settings based on the density of the filter you’re using.

Even better, with a solid neutral density filter you can adjust ISO to improve your flexibility and reduce the number of filters you need to carry.

For example, I generally carry a ten-stop and a six-stop neutral density filter when photographing. I’ll also carry filters with a lower density value when shooting video, but that’s a different matter.

The ten-stop and six-stop filters are, of course, four stops apart in terms of density. If I am using the ten-stop filter but want to achieve the same results as would have been achieved with a six-stop filter without changing the shutter speed and aperture, I could raise the ISO setting to 1600 ISO. But, of course, that wouldn’t generally be necessary because I could simply switch to the six-stop filter or change my aperture or shutter speed values.

The point is, when using a solid neutral density filter you can adjust the ISO setting to create a result that is similar to what you might have achieved with a different neutral density filter or a variable ND filter. In my mind, being able to take this approach makes up for the lack of variability with a solid neutral density filter. And by using solid neutral density filters I’m able to avoid the trial-and-error issues that tend to be involved with the use of variable neutral density filters.

To be sure, there are some excellent variable neutral density filters available. I’m a big fan of the variable ND filters from Singh-Ray (http://www.singh-ray.com) for example. But my personal preference from a “workflow in the field” standpoint is to use solid neutral density filters rather than variable filters.

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Benefits of a Catalog

Today’s Question: For years I have been filing all my photos by year, month and event. Also each time I create a new event I add it to a “alpha sort” file with its year/month location. This is simple and always works.

My question is: Why can’t I just continue to use my “year/month/event” system instead of creating all the extra work of having a Lightroom catalog? What are the big benefits of making catalogs?

Tim’s Quick Answer: I have a few responses here. First, any folder structure that makes sense to you is a good folder structure as far as I’m concerned. Second, Lightroom provides benefits beyond your basic folder structure, and there’s no need to change your folder structure just because you’re using Lightroom. Third, there are some subtle but valuable benefits to the use of a catalog in your image-management workflow.

More Detail: In my mind there are two key benefits to using Lightroom as opposed to a solution that employs other software such as the combination of Adobe Bridge and Photoshop.

The first benefit is that your workflow will be more streamlined. Instead of using Adobe Bridge to manage your photos, Adobe Camera Raw to process your photos, Photoshop to apply finishing effects, and a combination of Bridge and Photoshop to share your photos, you can perform most of the tasks in your workflow within Lightroom. You can think of Lightroom as providing a combination of Adobe Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw, and much more. So there is a workflow advantage available in Lightroom, at least in my opinion.

The second key benefit relates to the catalog itself. Because you have a central catalog in Lightroom that is managing the basic info about your photos, you can filter your photos in Lightroom much more quickly than you could in Adobe Bridge or other “browser” software.

So, for example, you can quickly filter every single photo you’ve ever capture to show you only those with a five-star rating. Or you could filter based on every image with a three-star or better rating that was captured with a shutter speed in excess of one second if you are looking for your best long exposures. There are many examples, but the point is that you can filter across your entire library of photos much more quickly with Lightroom than you could with Adobe Bridge, due in large part to the catalog that is used in Lightroom.

I would also argue that using Lightroom doesn’t involve any additional work beyond the use of Adobe Bridge. To be sure, many photographers have been confused by the workflow requirements involved in using a catalog, and have made a mess of their workflow in the process. But if you learn to use Lightroom properly, it can provide a variety of workflow advantages in my opinion, especially compared to the use of Adobe Bridge in conjunction with a basic folder structure.

In Lightroom you can still use the exact same folder structure you’re already using in your workflow, as well as the various metadata options such as star ratings. But in addition, you can leverage the catalog and the overall architecture of Lightroom to streamline your workflow.

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JPEG for Printing?

Today’s Question: Another photographer recently recommended that you should save images as a JPEG when uploading to an online printing service, and the specifically said that TIFF was a “bad” file format for this purpose. I thought TIFF files should be used instead of JPEG for making prints. Can you clarify?

Tim’s Quick Answer: While I wouldn’t “recommend” using JPEG files as the basis of producing prints, I would also acknowledge that in many cases it is possible to achieve a print of excellent quality from a JPEG image. That said, the only reason in this case to use a JPEG image rather than a TIFF image is that the JPEG file size will be considerably smaller, which can be helpful (or even mandatory) when uploading an image to an online print service.

More Detail: The key issue with a JPEG image is the subtle grid pattern that is often visible within the photo, caused by the compression used to reduce the size of JPEG images. With a high Quality setting for the JPEG image, the grid pattern will generally be relatively difficult to see. However, with some images, and especially with larger print sizes, that grid pattern may become visible.

Thus, while it is certainly possible to produce a print from a JPEG image where you can’t see the grid pattern caused by JPEG compression, my preference is to work from an image that does not have “lossy” compression applied to it when I am producing a print.

In other words, whenever possible I prefer to use a TIFF image format rather than a JPEG image format for photos that need to be saved so they can be printed by a print service. It is very possible that you can achieve an excellent print from a JPEG image, but there are some risks involved due to the JPEG compression. By contrast, with a TIFF image saved without compression (or with lossless compression, such as the LZW scheme) you don’t have to worry at all about compression artifacts in the final print.

So, given the choice I would work from a TIFF image, but in cases where that is not practical you will generally get very good results from a JPEG image saved at the maximum Quality setting.

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Why One Catalog?

Today’s Question: Can you explain why you prefer to use a single catalog to manage your photos in Lightroom, rather than using different catalogs for photos that fall into different categories or timeframes?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The reason I prefer (and generally recommend) using a single catalog in Lightroom is that I want to be able to find any of my photos with minimal effort. When I am looking for a particular photo I certainly expect to need to remember details about the photo so I know what folder to look in or what metadata values to filter by. But I don’t want to have to remember which specific Lightroom catalog a given photo is contained in. In other words, my preference for a single catalog relates to an effort to streamline my workflow for managing my photos.

More Detail: I should hasten to add that the workflow solutions that I find work best for me aren’t necessarily the best solutions for all photographers. However, when it comes to using a single catalog, my opinion is that this is the best approach for most photographers.

To be sure, there are scenarios where I think it makes sense to use multiple catalogs in Lightroom. For example, if in addition to my travel and nature photography I also offered my services as a wedding photographer, I would likely keep the photos from weddings I was hired to photograph in a separate catalog. That’s because there would be a clear and significant distinction between the two general categories of photos. In that type of situation, I would prefer to catalogs to reduce clutter and confusion in my workflow.

But in general, I feel it is beneficial to have all of your photos in a single catalog, so you aren’t adding an extra step to your workflow. When you want to locate an image, you simply launch Lightroom and work with your only catalog. You don’t need to think about which catalog to open.

I suspect many photographers started using multiple catalogs because in early versions Lightroom wasn’t able to handle large number of photos in a single catalog. My experience with the first version or two of Lightroom was that after you accumulated about 30,000 in a single catalog, Lightroom slowed to the point of being virtually unusable.

However, Lightroom has since been improved to the point that there is no real need to impose a limit on how many photos you have in a single catalog. My personal Lightroom catalog now contains over 300,000 photos (and growing).

If you feel that having more than one Lightroom catalog adds efficiency and organization to your workflow, then by all means you should use multiple catalogs. But otherwise you might consider whether a single catalog makes more sense, and if so merge all of your catalogs into a single “master” catalog.

And as a reminder, subscribers to Pixology magazine can gain access to the April 2013 issue for an in-depth article on the process of merging catalogs in Lightroom. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can learn more at http://www.pixologymag.com.

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Merging Catalogs

Today’s Question: Is there a way to combine multiple catalogs in Lightroom? For whatever reason several catalogs have been created in different versions of Lightroom over the years and it would be convenient to just have one catalog.

Tim’s Quick Answer: Yes, you can absolutely merge multiple Lightroom catalogs into a single “master” catalog. The basic process involves opening the catalog you want to have as your master catalog, and then using the “Import from Another Catalog” command (found on the File menu) to merge other catalogs into your master catalog.

More Detail: I do prefer to use a single catalog for all of my photographic images, and so in general I recommend merging catalogs if you have created multiple catalogs to manage your photos in Lightroom. The process of merging catalogs in Lightroom is relatively straightforward, but it is critical that you take a cautious approach to avoid confusion.

In particular, I recommend first making a list of all of the catalogs you want to merge. Then identify the catalog that you want to use as your “master” catalog. Use the File > Import from Another Catalog command to merge each of the secondary catalogs into your master catalog.

When you merge catalogs, you have the option of copying your images to a new location, or simply adding the photos based on their current location. I recommend using the “Add” option, leaving the photos where they are when you merge catalogs. Then, as needed, you can move photos to a different location after you’ve merged all of your catalogs into a single master catalog.

I covered the process of merging catalogs in the April 2013 issue of Pixology magazine. Subscribers can gain access to this back issue (and others) of Pixology by sending an email to renee@timgrey.com.

In addition, I am in the final process of producing a video training course on “Cleaning Up Your Mess in Lightroom”, which will be available in the GreyLearning video training library very soon.

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Time Machine Backup

Today’s Question: I have an iMac and back up with a Time Machine and an external hard drive. Please discuss the role of a Time Machine in backup.

Tim’s Quick Answer: Time Machine provides a form of incremental backup, and is included as part of the Macintosh operating system. I consider Time Machine to be a good “extra” tool as part of a larger backup workflow, and I make use of Time Machine to backup my computers. However, I consider Time Machine to be a supplementary backup solution, not a primary solution.

More Detail: My personal preference is to employ a backup solution that creates an exact copy of my original data. So, for example, I have an external hard drive that I use for storing my photos, and another external hard drive that I use for all of my other key data. I use a synchronization software tool (GoodSync in my case, available at http://www.goodsync.com) to create a backup copy that is an exact copy of the source drive. This way, when I experience a hard drive failure, recovery is very straightforward.

With Time Machine you are creating an incremental backup. In other words, each time you backup with Time Machine you are only backing up files that have changed since the last backup. In addition, Time Machine maintains a number of copies of your files going back in time, based on the amount of free space on your hard drive.

So, with Time Machine you can literally go “back in time” if you realize you have deleted a file or modified a file in a way you didn’t intend. This can be very helpful, of course, but it doesn’t provide a solution for my primary goal, which is to have a backup that is an exact copy of my master hard drive.

In my case I keep my photos and most of my key data on external hard drives. I then use synchronization software to create a backup copy of those drives, generally to at least two backup drives. To me this is a relatively ideal solution.

Of course, one of the problems with a synchronization backup is that it also duplicates your mistakes. If you erase a photo from your primary storage drive, a synchronization backup will also erase the photo from the backup drive. In most cases you can disable the removal of files in the synchronization process, provided you have adequate storage capacity on your backup drive.

I do, however, still employ Time Machine as part of my larger backup solution. This allows me to create regular backup copies of active files on my computer’s internal hard drive. In general that doesn’t impact my photography workflow, but since Time Machine is so easy to implement and because it helps overcome scenarios such as when you inadvertently erase or modify a file, I consider it an important part of my overall backup workflow.

So, whenever I’ve performed any significant work (and sometimes even after only insignificant work!) I will perform a synchronization backup of my external hard drives and a Time Machine backup of my internal hard drive. In my mind, any solution that is easy to implement and provides safeguards in your workflow is a good solution. Time Machine along with a synchronization backup certainly meet those criteria in my mind.

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Over-Sharpening?

Today’s Question: In Lightroom when you export a photo to a folder on the hard drive, you have an opportunity to apply output sharpening. Later, if you take that photo to the Print module, you also have an opportunity to do sharpening before printing. In this workflow, if you sharpen both times, do you run the risk of over sharpening?

Tim’s Quick Answer: If you were indeed to apply output sharpening more than once for the same image, there would most certainly be a risk of having the image be over-sharpened. However, with what I would consider a “normal” workflow in Lightroom it is not likely that you are actually applying output sharpening multiple times to the same image. Instead, you would be creating unique output each time based on your original capture.

More Detail: Lightroom employs a workflow with two stages of sharpening. The first stage of sharpening is found in the Develop module, and is aimed at compensating for the factors that reduce sharpness in your original capture. Thus, this sharpening step is often referred to as “input” or “capture” sharpening.

The second stage of sharpening is output sharpening, where you’re primarily improving the perceived sharpness of the image in the final output. This is most critical when printing a photo, because ink spreading on the paper can have a significant impact on the perceived sharpness of the image.

Generally speaking, both “input” and “output” sharpening are applied when the image is actually exported in some form. And in general, whenever a photo is exported you will be creating your output based on the original capture.

So, for example, if you export a photo as a JPEG image so you can share the photo online, Lightroom will create a JPEG image based on your original capture and save the resulting file in the location you specify. When you print an image from within the Print module, the output is similarly created based on the original RAW capture. In both cases, of course, the adjustments you applied in the Develop module are taken into account, and the setting you used for output sharpening is also employed to sharpen the final image.

The output sharpening, however, is not preserved as part of your adjustments in the Develop module. So assuming you are generating output from your original image in both cases, you don’t need to worry about applying multiple passes of output sharpening to the photo.

Of course, if you export a JPEG image for sharing and add that exported image back to the catalog, it is possible to apply multiple output sharpening passes to a photo. However, this is not a workflow approach I would generally recommend. Instead, I recommend using your original capture as the starting point whenever sharing a photo in any way from within Lightroom.

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Folder Organization

Today’s Question: Do you always leave every image from a shoot in the same folder forever? If you have a 5-star image, is it in the same folder with no-star shots in perpetuity? If so, do you rename them while keeping them in the same folder? Do you have a separate folder for images you print?

Tim’s Quick Answer: My personal approach is to keep photos in their “original” photo “forever”, along with all other images captured on the same shoot or trip. I then use star ratings and keywords as needed to help ensure I can always find a particular photo when I need it.

More Detail: One of the things I appreciate about Lightroom is that the central catalog makes it easy for me to filter across my entire catalog of photos, or to filter based on the photos within one or more folders. As a result, I can easily find all of my very best photos very quickly by choosing the “All Photographs” option from the Catalog section of the left panel in the Library module, and then setting a filter to show only five-star images.

To be sure, many photographers employ a folder structure that involves organizing photos into a different folder from the “original” folder once that image has been identified as a best photo, or as a photo for which prints are being offered for sale.

In other words, I’m not suggesting that all photographers should always adopt my approach of keeping all photos from a single shoot in a single folder, using other metadata values to locate specific images.

To me what is most important is that you are able to locate the image you need when you need it. Along with star ratings, keywords, and other metadata values, the folder structure can help you keep your photos organized and locate specific images.

When it comes to defining a folder structure, my overall recommendation is to define a structure based on the way you think about your images, or based on the way you’re likely to look for images. So, if you will be looking for a photo based on the trip on which you captured the photo, you may want to keep the photo in the original folder with the other images from that trip.

If, on the other hand, you think about your photos based on those that are offered for sale as prints, you might want to take a different approach. However, I would also add that if you think you want to move images from their original folder to a folder for images that have been printed, you might instead want to assign a keyword or create a collection in Lightroom to serve that additional purpose, keeping the original photo in the same folder and using other means to identify specific images.

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Adding GPS to Metadata

Today’s Question: I know you have said that if you take a picture with your iPhone you can add GPS coordinates to your Lightroom entries. I have found that if you use Google Maps to find where you took a picture and do a mouse click you can get the GPS coordinates and they are in the format Lightroom likes. A simple copy and paste will get it done. Clearly I am not doing this for all images but there are images I would like to have listed on the Maps module and this seems to be straightforward, simple and fast compared with other things I have tried.

Tim’s Quick Answer: Actually, there is a faster and easier way to accomplish this right inside of Lightroom. The Map module in Lightroom actually makes use of Google Maps. You can locate a position on the map in the Map module, and then drag and drop a photo (or multiple selected photos at once) from the Filmstrip onto the map, and the GPS coordinates will be added to metadata for those photos.

More Detail: There are, of course, a variety of ways you can add photos to the map in Lightroom’s Map module. But in all cases, adding photos to the map really just means adding GPS coordinates to the metadata for the photos.

If photos are captured with a camera that includes GPS capabilities, those photos will have GPS coordinates automatically embedded in metadata. That, in turn, means the photos will appear on the map in the Map module within Lightroom.

You can also capture a reference photo with a GPS-enabled device such as a smartphone, and then use that reference photo to help you locate map positions for other photos captured without the benefit of built-in GPS. This is a subject I addressed in the article “Location Snapshots” in the August 2012 issue of Pixology magazine.

In addition, you can record a GPS track log with a variety of different devices (including a smartphone) and then synchronize that track log to your photos within Lightroom to add GPS coordinates to the images.

And, as noted above, you can simply drag-and-drop one or more photos onto the map from the Filmstrip in Lightroom in order to add the photos to the map, and add GPS coordinates to metadata in the meantime.

The map in Lightroom also includes the option to switch between a road map and satellite view, which can also be helpful for locating specific positions on the map.

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RAID Backup

Today’s Question: I recently realized that, although I had a backup copy of the external drive where I store my images, the drives were at least three years old. Since I recently read a scary article on the failure rates of various brands of drives within five years, I decided that I should replace the drives. Rather than buy two new separate external drives, I decided to buy an enclosure for two 4TB internal drives that are mirrored using a RAID setting. In this way, any changes in one drive are mirrored to the other. My question is whether you would consider this to be an acceptable way of maintaining a backup of the images from the time of download. I should add that in addition, I also use Goodsynch to back up the mirrored drives and I use Backblaze as an offsite, online backup. I’d appreciate your opinion as to whether you think this is an adequate process.

Tim’s Quick Answer: Using a drive with RAID mirroring is better than using a single hard drive, but not as good (in terms of backup security) as backing up to a second hard drive immediately. With this approach, my (admittedly paranoid) preference would be to not format the media card in the camera until another backup to a separate physical device is performed.

More Detail: There are, of course, many possible solutions for backing up your photos, and from my perspective there isn’t a single “right” solution. Instead, there are a variety of options, and those options fall on a scale between what I would consider “high risk” and “low risk”.

The highest risk approach, of course, is to never backup your photos at all. From there you can define a wide variety of workflows for backing up your photos that offer various degrees of protection.

My concern about a RAID mirroring solution is that both copies of your data are stored on a single physical device. Granted, there are two actual hard drives, but those two hard drives are connected to the same power supply and data connection, and are also contained in the same enclosure. In other words, if something happens to the overall device, you could lose both copies of your photos at one time.

This issue is mitigated, of course, by creating additional copies of your photos via a synchronization backup and an online backup, in your particular example. That obviously creates a situation where you ultimately have four copies (including the originals) of your photos even after you’ve formatted the digital media card in your camera.

My concern in this case relates to the time between downloading your photos to the RAID hard drive and creating an additional backup on a separate physical device (such as via synchronization), especially if you are going to immediately format the card in the camera to use for new captures.

In other words, with this type of setup my personal preference would be to download to the RAID drive (creating a master and backup copy in the process), but then to wait until after another backup is created on a separate physical device to format the media card in the camera.

As always, a backup workflow involves making decisions that balance security versus workflow efficiency. My preference whenever possible is to take the most conservative approach possible that is still reasonably easy to implement.

It is worth noting, for example, that on many trips I have two copies of my photos stored on two separate hard drives, but I still often have both of those hard drives in the same camera bag. That involves a certain degree of risk, so it is important to maintain a degree of perspective here. When it comes to backing up your photos, there is always an even more paranoid step you could add to your workflow!

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