Thursday, July 5, 2012

A User's Guide to the Lumix G3

With micro 4/3rds technology getting better and cheaper, many people are trading up from point and shoot cameras. The problem is that, if you're used to letting the camera make all the decisions, getting the most out of this camera can be overwhelming. This guide is designed to help you bridge from a point and shoot to gaining more control over your images.

All the information in this guide can be found scattered about the manual, but the 208 page manual, which is only available electronically, is not really very user friendly. I suspect most users will never bother reading it. By way of background, this guide assumes you're using a Lumix G3 with the kit lens (14-42 OIS). 

Since I have a couple of other Lumix cameras where the functions are laid out similarly, I believe the guide can also be of use to owners of other micro 4/3rds Lumix cameras as well as Lumix bridge cameras. 

Lesson 1: Use P Mode

It's easy to turn on iA and let the camera act like a point and shoot. Don't do it. Instead, switch the camera to P mode and leave it there. This mode is flexible enough to let you override the decisions the camera makes while not having to bother with optimizing the exposure if you do not want to. 


You'll need to adjust some of the P mode settings from the default. Below are my preferred settings:

Auto white balance (AWB) - default
Matrix metering (the metering box with (.) in the center) - default
AF lock (To access, click the menu button, choose "custom setup", then on the "2" tab, choose "AF" from the AF/AE lock tab.)
Center focus point (To access, click on, choose "AF Mode" and select center focus. This is the mode with a single dark square in the center.)
Guide lines: (Choose menu, custom menu, tab 2, guide lines. Choose the tic tac toe pattern.)

One problem with point and shoot cameras is that the camera chooses where to focus. Sometimes, it makes really bad choices. With these settings, you take over deciding on what part of the image should be in sharp focus. To do this, place the subject of the picture in the center, half depress the shutter, then move the camera to recompose the image the way you want. This may feel slow and unnatural at first, but stay with it. In a very short time, it will become second nature and you'll never again have to put up with having the camera stupidly focus on the wrong thing. 

I like to have guide lines to ensure that my horizontals and verticals are straight as well as to influence composition. Initially, the guide lines will seem distracting but again, within a short time you won't even notice them. They are crucial for keeping your horizons straight. While you can straighten in post processing, this entails significant image degradation, so it's much better to get it right in camera.


After you've composed your shot, you'll want to make some adjustments to give the image a more professional look. There are only two adjustments you need to worry about, depth of field and exposure. Depth of field determines how blurry the parts of the image that are not the subject will look. Unlike point and shoots, the G3 can produce lovely blur (bokeh). Exposure determines how white or black things look. Your camera sensor will want to make the image a neutral color, which is fine in most cases. But if you're shooting extremely light or extremely dark scenes, you'll want to adjust the exposure.

1. Depth of Field (DOF):

The beauty part of P mode is that you can control the DOF (amount of blur away from the subject) in the shot. To do this, after you've half pressed the shutter, rotate the dial to change aperture (the leftmost number in yellow). Choose the smallest aperture setting for lots of blur (bokeh), choose the largest number for maximum focus throughout the image. If you don't care, just leave the dial alone. 

Hint: You can half press and then release the trigger to activate the adjustment mode. Move the dial to the preferred aperture and then redo the focus. The camera will remember what you want to do. 

2. Exposure

If the image is too bright or to dark, you can control the exposure by clicking the dial and then increasing or decreasing exposure. You'd want to do this if the scene is especially white (like snow), in which case you'll need to brighten, or especially dark (like coal), in which case you'll need to darken. The camera's bias is to make everything a neutral brightness. 

Low Light Situations

To prevent blurs when not using a tripod, you need a sufficiently fast shutter speed. A standard rule of thumb is that if your focal length is x then you need a shutter speed of 1/x or faster. So if you are maximally zoomed with the kit lens, you'd want to be shooting at 1/42 of a second or faster. Thus, our goal to prevent blurs is to either speed up the shutter or stabilize the camera. 

1. Shutter speed: You can use these adjustments to trick the camera into giving you a faster shutter speed. First, use the DOF adjustment to choose the smallest f/stop (aperture number) possible. Second, darken the exposure by about 1 stop. This will produce a too dark image, but you can recover the lighting in post processing. 

2. Foot zoom: A simple way to solve the blurs problem is to dezoom the camera, instead relying on the "foot zoom" of moving closer to the subject. The kit lens will focus up to about a foot from the subject, so you can get quite close. 

3. Bracing, natural tripods: Bracing yourself and the camera against a wall, counter, or some other surface also improves stability. Also, tables, chairs, and various other objects make excellent natural tripods. If you have one, choose timer mode (the lowest button in the cross-keys on the camera).  

Lesson 2: Poor Man's Zoom

One issue with the kit lens is its reach. The 14-42mm lens is equivalent to 28-84mm with a full frame SLR. Sometimes, you need more zoom. Here's how to do it without spending more money on lenses. 

1. Go to P mode. Activate and go to "Picture Setting". Change to a picture setting with an M instead of an L. I prefer 3:2 M since I like to shoot with the same image ratio (3:2) as an SLR. 

2. Click on the main menu, choose "Rec." and then go to tab 4. Choose "Ex. Tele Conv." and  set it to "On". 

3. Click on the main menu and choose "Custom Setup". In tab 1, choose "Custom Set Mem." and pick "C1". When it asks you to overwrite custom set 1 with current settings, choose "Yes". 

4. Activate the and reset you image quality from M back to L. 

The C1 setting is now your zoom lens. What Ex. Tele Conv. does is to create, in effect, an extension tube on the lens. This doubles the focal length so that your kit lens is now equivalent to a 56-168mm on a full frame SLR. This doubles the zoom capabilities. You take a slight hit on image quality but, in my experience, it is not noticeable except if you make poster sized prints or extreme crops. So now, if you want to go long, just change from P to C1 mode.

Lesson 3: What Mode to Use?

This lesson runs through modes for various shooting situations. 

1. General shooting: P mode. 
2. Zooming in close: C1 mode
3. Portraits: P mode, make the f/stop (aperture) as small a number as possible.The subject should cover about 75% of the image. (Also, see lesson 6 on fill in flash)
4. Landscapes: P mode, make the f/stop as large a number as possible.Choose either the sky or the ground to cover 2/3rds of the image. Do not place the horizon in the center of the image as it won't produce a pleasing composition. 

 Unusual Shooting Situations:

While you can use P mode with adjustments to deal with unusual situations, it is quicker to just use the pre-programmed scenario modes.

1. Close-up Flowers: Choose SCN mode and select flowers. 
2. Fireworks: Choose SCN and select illuminations 
3. Fast moving subjects: Choose SCN and select sports
4. Night portraits: Choose SCN and select night portrait. Use something to stabilize the camera if you possibly can. A tripod is ideal. 
5. Sudden, unexpected shooting opportunity: iA mode
6. Indoor Shooting: See Lesson 4 below
7. Sunsets, images that are both very bright and very dark: See Lesson 5 below

Lesson 4: Shooting Indoors

Many shooting situations, especially those at parties and the like, occur indoors. These are surprisingly difficult shooting situations. The temptation is simply to use a flash as the source of illumination and fire away. This technique, however, often produces poor results. 

This lesson teaches how to shoot indoors and get good shots. 

1. Customize the white balance: While auto white balance is good in many situations, indoor lighting can produce strange color effects. It is better to customize the white balance to the exact shooting situation. 

How to do it: Choose, go to white balance, choose custom 1, shoot a white piece of paper, then choose set. 
2. Use P mode with no flash: You simply cannot produce good shots using the onboard flash. Don't use it. Instead, move the subjects to the lightest part of the room, make your aperture number as low as possible and darken the exposure by -2/3 EV to gain shutter speed. Use a tripod (artificial or naturally occurring) or brace yourself to reduce camera shake. Take many images. 

The goal here is to rely on the image stabilization of the lens along with various bracing techniques to reduce the chance of blur. By taking many shots, you improve the odds of getting some good ones. 

Lesson 4: When to Use Flash
Flash can be used in two ways. The one that most people are familiar with is where the flash is used as the lighting source for indoor pictures. The less familiar is where the flash is used to fill in shadows outside. 

1. Indoor shooting: Don't use the flash as the illumination source unless you have a separate flash that you can bounce or place away from the camera. The flash that comes with the camera is pretty weak as the sole lighting source. Also, since it is so close to the lens, it produces harsh and ugly lighting that is unflattering to subjects. 

The right solution is to move individuals to the best natural light you can find, use the tricks described above to maximize shutter speed and brace the camera in some way, either with a tripod or some naturally occurring version of a tripod. 

Take lots of shots. Blurring is unavoidable in these situations, so you need to make up for this with volume of shots. If you take enough shots and brace, some will come out clearly. 

This technique will produce many more blurred shots than using a flash, but it will also produce many more "keepers" than the flash method. 

Lesson 5: Sunsets

Sunsets are a classic example of a situation where a scene is to bright and too dark for a camera to capture. The human eye is capable of resolving a much greater degree of light/dark contrast (about 11 stops) compared to a camera (about 5 stops). To approximate the "actual" view with a camera requires multiple shots of the same scene that are subsequently fused together. This is called exposure bracketing. 

To take an image of a sunset (or any other scene with both extreme brights and extreme darks), perform the following steps:

1. Set camera in P mode. 
2. Using, choose "drive mode" and select the third choice from left (exposure bracketing), a submenu will appear from which you should choose (5, 1), i.e. 5 shots at one EV (exposure value or f/stop) gap each. This will produce a series of shots from -2 EV to +2 EV, which is a good range to cover both the lights and the darks. 
3. Hold down shutter until it shoots 5 images. 

So far so good, but what to do with all these images. In post-processing. the program Photomatix (  is invaluable. This program will blend the images to produce a single image that captures both the lights and the darks. The setting "fusion/natural" in that program will produces natural looking images using the five shots taken with the Lumix. 

Lesson 6: Fill Flash

Many people buy cameras to take portraits of their family. Sadly, these portraits are often taken in poor inside light with harsh flash and are, consequently, bad. Here's how to take a good picture of your loved ones. 

1. Get them outside. Even when the weather is not sunny, outside light is far better than inside. The only reason to stay inside is rain, which is death to the Lumix. 

2. On a sunny day, place your subjects in light shade facing 90* away from the sun. Never place your subjects directly in the sun, as the harsh shadows are bad. Don't place them in deep shade or you'll have blur problems. Light shade is perfect. Locating them so that they are facing 90* away from the sun should minimize squinting while still providing some degree of sidelighting. 

3. Set flash to have -2/3 EV (use and add the flash to the scene. The goal here is not to use the flash to light the scene, rather the point is to even out the lighting over the face of the subjects. 


The most important lesson about mastering a new camera is to use it. Hopefully, these lessons allow users to get more out of their cameras than merely turning on iA and treating them as point and shoots. Happy shooting!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Human Focusing Rail

Lady in Yellow
While I mainly shoot using DSLRs, I occasionally want to travel light and then I carry around a Lumix DMC LZ-10, a perfectly serviceable point and shoot. Unlike many point and shoots, the Lumix allows you to specify the point of focus or let the camera choose one or more such points. Mostly, it does a decent job but, when it comes to close-up work, the lens hunts a lot. The fact that I cannot turn off autofocus and simply manually adjust the focus myself annoys the heck out of me.

Until recently, my solution was to keep refocusing over and over until I persuaded the camera to make the right decision. Sometimes, it would never get it right, and I'd give up. Then I had an idea. It is so obvious, it's amazing I didn't think of it or read about it earlier: All point and shoot cameras have a secret manual focus mode. It's called the human focus rail. With close-up shot, I found that, once the camera made a bad decision, I could maintain the focus lock and sway my body nearer and farther from the subject of the shot until I got the thing in focus. I would then fire away with the camera using burst to try to get a few in focus before body sway threw me out of focus. This strategy probably works even better if you have a tripod.

The shot above was taken using the human focus rail technique. The same strategy will work for farther away shots so long as the camera did not pick the focus point too stupidly.

Key lesson: We've become so dependent on technology to assist us in shooting pictures that it's easy to forget simple techniques that were part of every photographer's toolkit back in the everything manual days.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On Assignment

Something happens when you acquire Canon's 70-200mm L lens and carry it around to public events---you are instantly perceived as being a member of the press. People just assume that you must have some sort of official purpose to carry such a lens and, if you're assertive, you can come and go as you please in ways that ordinary civilians cannot.

On Memorial Day, I went early to a ceremony armed with my big lens displayed conspicuously around my neck. The conference organizers asked who I was shooting for and I answered (truthfully) that I'm a freelancer. This was good enough for them. I got introduced to the president of the guys organizing the ceremony and the PR guy. They were all delighted to have me around. While I was shooting the event, I noticed a woman behind me scribbling furiously in a notebook and occasionally taking snaps with an ancient point and shoot. At the end, I asked who she was writing for. It turned out to be a local weekly. She asked if she could use my images which was, of course, fine with me. So in the end, I went from being a pretend member of the press to a real one.

While I shot a bunch of straight documentary type images. I also took some artsy shots as well. Here are a couple of those:

From Danville Memorial Day 2011

From Danville Memorial Day 2011

From Danville Memorial Day 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Mysteries of Flash

I rarely use flash, and it's a weakness in my shooting style. I think my dislike of flash comes from horrendous experiences of shooting indoors with the onboard flash of a point and shoot camera. Inevitably, these shots turn out poorly and, as a consequence, I've internalized the idea that flash shots are, necessarily, bad shots. So I decided to work on improving.

One of the standard recommendations from the web are to create or buy various flash diffusers so as to make the light softer and less concentrated. I decided to test these out with various flash angles and so on. The three "treatments" are: no diffuser, film canister, and sto-fen flash diffuser. The film canister is a translucent film canister with a slit cut in it so that it fits over the onboard flash to form a DIY diffuser. The sto-fen is a standard store bought diffuser. While it is meant for a slave flash, it can be draped (inelegantly) over the onboard flash as well.

All shots are with a Rebel XT on a tripod with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 in P mode with manual focus. White balance is set to auto and the color parameters are at the default settings.

The subjects for the portrait are some of my son's stuffed animals. They're sitting about 6' away from the camera in a poorly lit bedroom. The flash is pretty much the only light source.

We start with the baseline--onboard flash with no diffuser.
From flash test 4

It's not a terrible shot, but it isn't good either. It's too contrasty and the colors are more garish than in reality.

Now we add the DIY film canister.

It doesn't make as much difference I was hoping. The light is a little more evenly spread. The contrast is less severe. Basically, the histogram is shifted to the left with less spiking at the top. The catchlights in the dinosaur's eye are a bit crisper. It's an improvement, but only a modest one.

Now we try the sto-fen diffuser. It is not meant for this purpose which means I'm shooting through the side of the device instead of out of the top as the thing was designed.

Of the three onboard flash shots, I like this image the best. It's again less contrasty than without the diffuser. The light is more even on the subjects. It hasn't shifted down the light as much as the film cannister. Overall, it's a slight improvement.

Now we return to the film canister, but add some paper in front of it pointing upward to try to imitate a bounce flash.

This helps. It's about the best of the choices.

Now we add the slave flash, which, in this case is a Canon Speedlite 430EX. It is aimed directly at our subjects.

This is about as awful as the onboard flash. While it's not as contrasty, the colors are garish and there's definitely a "deer in the headlights" quality to the light.

Now we add the Sto-Fen diffuser. (Note that the film canister DIY rig is too small for the Speedlite.

It does what it is supposed to do--cut the light and make it softer and more diffuse. It's a better image though it's still pretty bad.

Now we change aim angles. In this case, a 3/4 angle with the Speedlite to bounce some of the light off the ceiling (without and with diffuser, respectively)

This is a ton better than anything we saw previously. The light actually looks reasonably nice on the stuffed animals. With the diffuser, we end up with a classic bell curve histogram. Absent the diffuser, there is more light overall and especially in the background of the image, which isn't all that helpful. Either way, this is a vast improvement. (Of course, there's a problem if there's no ceiling off of which to bounce light. I'll have to try experiments in other rooms with vary high ceilings, but that's for another day.)

Since 3/4 high was so successful, why not go whole hog and rely completely on bounced light. Here, the Speedlite is aimed directly upward.

Apparently, this was too much of a good thing. Without the diffuser, the light is like that of the sun at high noon. There are lots of unflattering shadows under the eyes of the stuffies. The diffuser makes things a lot better. In fact, it's hard for me to choose between this shot and the 3/4 shot with the diffuser.

So what did I learn?

1. The diffuser makes a huge difference, especially when bouncing the flash. It makes a small improvement in the onboard flash, but it's still a lousy image.
2. Bouncing is key for halfway decent light. 3/4 is clearly the best without the diffuser. With it, either 3/4 or ceiling work. In situations where there are no ceilings or high ceilings off which to bounce, my guess is that 3/4 is the safe bet since you're still getting some of the light directly.

These experiments haven't revised my overall view of flash. I will still avoid it when possible, but at least I have a better idea how to shoot in flash situations to get somewhat decent photos.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lensbaby and Creativity

The Path

A couple of weeks ago I was in a creative funk. I photograph nearly every day, mostly by walking around the neighborhood or the UC Berkeley campus and shooting what I see. While the changing of the seasons and even variation in weather every day provides some novelty, it seemed like I was taking the same shots over and over again. There are only so many angles one can shoot a daisy before the whole exercise becomes rather routine. I used to look forward to the next great shot each day when I went out, but now it felt like I was stuck in a routine. I needed a way out.

As aside: I post my best work on he photo sharing site Flickr. It's a great site and the community aspect to photography has unquestionably allowed me to improve a great deal, but there are some pernicious aspects to Flickr feedback. Clearly, the goal of posting an image is to attract attention, usually measured in the form of comments and faves. But to attract this attention, you are competing with lots of other pictures in thumbnail form. The size effect matters. Low key images filled with subtle details tend not to get much love as the details get lost in the thumbnail. On the other hand, brightly colored images with well-defined subjects get more attention even though they might be boring or even poorly focused at larger scales. The system leads to incentives to create images that translate well in thumbnail size. This, however, stifles the creative possibilities for some types of images.

End of Aside.

About 10 days ago, I acquired a Lensbaby Composer. I didn't really intend to buy a Lensbaby. It wasn't on my list of most coveted lenses. But I ran across a couple of images that were compelling and, in searching for how these images were made, found that they were shot with a Lensbaby. The ad copy for Lensbaby promises nothing short of opening up a new world of creativity. Promising improved creativity is certainly alluring but hard to deliver upon. There are tons of self-help books out there to unlock your creative potential. Most of these are a mix of common sense, platitudes, and some zen phrases full of apparent import yet devoid of any meaning. Rarely will these books make you more creative.

Photography creativity books are the same way. If you're a beginner, they can be helpful. Indeed, I really enjoyed Bryan Peterson's book Learning to See Creatively. Rereading during my creative lull was not helpful. Most of Peterson's advice is pretty obvious to an experienced photographer. For instance, while it is good advice to seek out unusual angles, get closer to fill the frame, and try panning shots, hearing this same advice repeated did little to re-ignite the fire of creativity.

But the Lenbaby is something altogether different. It creates a sort of radial blur around the subject of the image. Now one could do the same sort of thing after the fact with Photoshop, though it is a bit involved to create exactly the Lensbaby effect, but the difference is seeing the possibilities during the shot. By controlling the size of the aperture, you can control the amount of blur. At f/4, you get a small focus point and quite a bit of blur. By f/8, the blur is pretty subtle. I suppose if you stop down enough you get rid of the blur entirely.

Now why is this more creative? Well, it's just a technique so it's not per se more creative. But it did get me to see familiar things in an unfamiliar way. More importantly, by forcing you to commit to the subject of the photo in advance, you must think carefully about composition. Where this makes the biggest difference for me is in landscape shots of various ranges.

For instance, the sample shot at the top of this entry is a path that I've walked down many times. I've shot this path reasonably often and normally that's the subject of the shot--the path itself. Rarely are these shots compelling unless their is some sort of unusual atmospherics, like fog, to add interest. The Lensbaby requires that you offer a more detailed answer as to the subject of the composition. Simply saying "the path" won't do. In the case of the image above, the large oak trees on the right are the subject. And, in this shot, it is the first large oak tree with the extending branches that is the subject. Knowing the subject and thinking about the possibilities for new and unusual subjects really does enhance creativity.