Friday, November 1, 2013

Grizzlies in RRBL (Really, REALLY Bad Light)

So here I was, on my way up to British Columbia, Canada to photograph some grizzly bears during their most photogenic time - when they're on a salmon-feeding frenzy.  I had with me the new Sony 70-400 G II lens (an amazing lens that's just perfect for wildlife) and my A99 and I was looking forward to taking pictures that were so sharp that I'd be able to blow them up to wall-sized enlargements, and then people would stand 2 inches away and exclaim, "Wow!  I can count every hair in their fur!"  (My equipment is capable of that.)

That's what I was hoping for, anyway.  Instead I ended up having to deal with RRBL (Really, REALLY Bad Light).  Without good light, even the best equipment might mean mediocre results.  Could I manage to bring home sellable shots in such poor conditions?


My wife and I were on a road trip, starting in California and driving straight North through the Pacific Northwest.  We stopped in Seattle for a few days to be tourists, give a talk at the Rainier Hills Photo Club, and conduct a Friedman Archives High-Impact Photography Seminar (which went very well!).  (Click on any image to view a larger version).

A panorama of the Seattle Seminar.  Everyone had a great time!

On a rare clear night, downtown Seattle from the top of the Space Needle.  (I try to get compositions that nobody else has...)  This shot was made with the RX-100 Mark II, which I'm never without. 

From Seattle we traveled North to Campbell River in British Columbia, Canada.  Then we took a single-engine plane to a floating lodge called Knight Inlet, to observe nature from a boat and from a safe observation platform.

Da Plane!  Da Plane!

From a safe observation deck, I used my backup A77 for the added reach (the 1.5x crop factor can help when your subject is far away). Later I switched back to the A99 thinking it was better to have a 10 MP (cropped) image with lower noise than a 24 MP APS-C with higher noise.  

It rained just about every day.  And my camera and lens got plenty drenched.  This would be an acid test of the marketing department's claim of "weather sealing". :-)

Low light usually means slow shutter speeds (blurry animals) and/or high ISO (noisy images).  So what did I do to maximize my chances of getting a usable shot?

First, knowing that my exposure meter was going to get it wrong, I underexposed by about -1.3 stops.  Exposure meters assume you're shooting an average subject and average subjects reflect back about 18% of the light that hits it.  The dark bears and the dark water surface reflected back much less than that.  I dialed it down until my live view (and live histogram) looked right to me.  Below is an example of a bear shot in Auto Exposure and corrected, with histograms below.

Left - what the camera will want to do in Auto Exposure mode - lump most of the brightnesses in the center.  Right -- When I underexpose by about -1.3 stops, the picture gets darker (that's how it looked to my eyes), the histogram scrolls to the left, and as a fringe benefit I can use a faster shutter speed or lower ISO (sorely needed here!).

I also shot RAW and took out most of the noise in Lightroom later, but this didn't improve the images nearly as much as underexposing did.

I also post-processed to improve the contrast, but I had to do it by playing with the curves in order for it to look "just right".  I had to darken some of the blacks but not the deepest ones.  Below is an example:

I have several bald eagle shots also that were taken in a moving boat under the same bad conditions.  Check out the histogram on the right - most of the brightnesses are way over to the left, which is the correct exposure for this image.  Setting the camera to "Auto" without Exposure Compensation would have just killed this shot.

So here's the good news... when you downsize images (and sharpen slightly to restore the sharpness that downsizing erodes), these images look great, even when printed at 11x14.  Shrinking even further and posting to Facebook resulted in universal praise.  So most people don't pixel peep.  But was I able to attain my original goal, of getting pictures so perfect that you could enlarge them to wall-size and scrutinize?  I don't think so.  Could I license these?  Possibly - it depends on the customer's needs.  For 8x10 printed work they're actually pretty good.

So, after a lot of anguish and almost 200 GB of images (!), I am reminded of the essential ingredients of happiness I learned long ago: Have a goal, do everything you can to achieve that goal, and then LET GO OF THE OUTCOME.  You got what you got.  Show off your best results and move on.

[More bear pictures after the next section.]

Next Projects

Three new ebooks are in the works:
  • The awesome Sony A7/A7r
  • The impressive Fujifilm X100s
  • The Trend-setting Olympus E-M1 (you know I'm just making up these adjectives, right?)

Yes, I'm expanding into other brands.  All should be available in the first quarter of 2014.  If you'd like to be notified when they're ready, just fire off an email to Gary at Friedman Archives dot com.

No seminars are actively being planned, as we prepare for the arrival of our 4th grandchild in April.  However, if you're a photoclub you can fly me out there and I'll give you a seminar that will keep your club buzzing for months!  

Next Month

In next month's blog I'll talk about how I finally tackled Sony's new Flash Exposure algorithms and got my A99 to produce the results I used to get with my A900 on Auto: 

Doesn't look like I used a flash, yet the light is just perfect and balanced with ambient.  Older Minolta and Sony cameras did this automatically.  Not anymore.  Next month I'll explain the secret.

I leave you now with some of my favorite images from the Bear trip, dressed up by my friend DR Rawson:


Until next time...
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman


  1. It was interesting to see the auto-exposure shot next to the underexposed shot. I was surprised the auto shot was so blown out. Very informative, thanks....


    Do you ever "expose to the right" ? How would that apply to your bear photos?

    1. Are you kidding? That would be the WORST thing to do in this scenario (especially the bird shots taken from a moving boat!). In my scenario it was important to have as fast a shutter speed a possible.

      I wrote about "exposing to the right" in my Advanced Topics 1 guide. Since then Sony has re-arranged the way light intensities were represented within their RAW files and so the technique isn't as effective as it once was. GF

    2. Could you please expand on "Sony has re-arranged...and so the technique [expose to the right] isn't as effective as it once was"? Is Sony now doing some ETTR processing in-camera? (as advocated on Lum.Landscape in a relatively recent article on "Optimizing Exposure"). This would be welcome news.

  3. Hi Gary,

    I hope I can do as well with the silver 70-400mm... Tell me, do you have the Sony A7R in hand as yet and does it work well with the adapter for the A mount lenses? I want to compare the results from the A99, A900 and this one before going to Finland, Baltic's, Dubai/Oman and Slovinia (4 the GFL Dubai ski team) next month. If you have suggestions about how to have it in hand and evaluated before leaving I would appreciate them. I've ordered it from B&H but Sony Style is sometimes faster.
    PS. Looking forward to reading the A99 book. Friends are to send it to the Kindlefor my birthday.

    1. Hi, Dr. Hogan. Please send me an email and I'll provide a proper answer there.

  4. You mentioned "Later I switched back to the A99 thinking it was better to have a 10 MP (cropped) image with lower noise than a 24 MP APS-C with higher noise."

    I own an A77 and the silver 70-400G, and I would be interested in your conclusions regarding the differences between using your A77 and A99 for a low light situation.

    1. Short answer - when shrunk down for web and small to mid-sized printing, it absolutely doesn't matter. For picture-hanging sizes, in this instance the 10 MP images will win by a small margin.

      In general, if the light is good and the exposure is right for that light, the A77's images will win over the 10 MP Crop from the A99 for extremely large prints. But it's a theoretical question and in practice the real answer will always be "it depends".

    2. Gary, why didn't you use the (I hope these is the right term) clear picture zoom? I know, it is just for JPG, but I made good experience with the "old" 70-400 on my A99 when I do wildlife up to zoom-factor 2.

    3. Clear Image Zoom wouldn't have solved the problem of bad light, nor would it have given me better results than the post-processing I did on my computer.

    4. Regarding quote: "Later I switched back to the A99 thinking it was better to have a 10 MP (cropped) image with lower noise than a 24 MP APS-C with higher noise."

      What are the pros/cons of shooting with the a99 in "crop-mode" vs shooting full frame and cropping in PP? Does one provide better IQ?

    5. @anonymous: The short answer is the higher the pixel density, the noisier the image. A99 in crop mode is only 10 MP in an APS-C space and so will win noise-wise when scrutinized.

  5. Nice shots as always!
    About noise, try the new DXO 9 and enable
    PRIME, you will be impressed...

  6. This is another 'techie question' I have been thinking about for a while. "How simulate the 'Minolta Colors' on a Sony A99 with Zeiss Lens's" (85mm F14,135mmF17, 20mm F/2 )

    I started shooting with Minolta gear about mid seventies and particularly liked the colors that I could get from my Minolta Camera/lens. But now I use the A99 and wanted to get the same sort 'of colors' in my images, yet don't know what settings on the A99 to use to get the warmer fulsome minolta colors of old.

    I have your Sony (A100,A700,A77,A99) books and think there is some mention somewhere, but could not find it.

    Thanks, in advance


    1. Here, try this:

  7. Thanks for all your photo information especially with regards to Sony cameras. I do love the 70-400 II. However, I picked up a 1Dx and Sigma 120-300/2.8 for sports shooting. The focusing and processing speed of the 1Dx just flat out blows my 99 away. Also the high iso performance on the 1Dx is significantly better than my 99. Because of this, I almost have no use for this great lens any more. But all my speed lights are Sony so I will be waiting very impatiently for your information on the Sony flash. I knew if anyone could figure out Sony's flash system it would be you.

    November 3, 2013 at 2:36 PM

  8. Gary: Have you thought about doing a guide for the RX1 (and RX1r). I think the A7 (and A7r) are using the RX1 software platform so maybe they could be combined with the planned A7 book.



    1. I've learned in the past not to lump cameras that are too dissimilar together. :-) If the menus really are similar I'd think about it. But the reason I didn't write for that camera to begin with is because I think the group of people that [can justify and afford an RX1/r] AND [need a book to understand it] is so small that it wouldn't sell enough to make the effort worthwhile.

    2. All you RX-1 owners - please let me know if I'm wrong!

  9. Love these photos. We are headed to South America and have a day with penguins. I have not figured out what lens to take (or which camera)...thinking about a Nex6 or using my Canon 40D with 70-200L f4.0. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    1. For penguins I'd take the camera that had the longest lens.


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