Photo Editing 101: Why You Need to Calibrate Your Display

I've seen lots of talk lately about people who think buying a new monitor (display) will magically make them a photo editing wizard. This is entirely false. While having a high quality display is important and necessary to properly edit photos for color accuracy and exposure (for those times when you don't get your exposure perfect in-camera), simply having a high quality display won't make your post processing any better.

The fact is, yes, you do NEED a high quality display - this is the one I use and was built specifically for photo editing - but you also must have two things: 1) a high-quality, gaming-level video card to support the display and accurately render colors to it, and 2) a professional calibration tool to accurately calibrate your display for brightness, contrast, and color representation. Without those two things, your shiny, expensive display is no better than a $50 piece of junk off the bargain bin.

Now, I'm a PC guy, so I had the luxury of building a PC to spec from the ground up so I could process photos quickly and easily, while having the RAM to handle Lightroom and Photoshop running at the same time, and a video card powerful enough to render colors correctly on a high quality, calibrated display. The other option would have been to buy an iMac with a retina display, which is factory calibrated for superior color accuracy. I hate Apple and have been a PC user my entire life, so sticking Windows was a no-brainer. If you're an Apple user, great, you've already won the battle and can stop reading.

The way the Spyder calibration tools work is quite simple: you connect the tool via USB, install the included software, put the calibrator on your display, press a couple buttons and get out of the way while it does its thing. Its "thing" is calibrating your colors based on the amount and type of light in the room. For me, I calibrate my display during the day with my blinds (shutters for those of you outside the US) open so the sunlight hits my screen, as I've found through trial and error that this offers the most accurate color representation and brightness calibration. Once that's done, you're good to go and if you leave the SpyerPro connected and set it to monitor the ambient light in the room, it'll automatically correct for changes in light to maintain your calibrated settings and you'll never notice a difference.

The OTHER key you need to pay attention to is that you want a display with IPS - In-Plane Switching. What IPS does is allows you to view your screen the same way from any angle. This means that the image you see on your screen when you look directly at it will be the same image you see when looking at your screen on an angle, from the other side of the room, laying down. It doesn't matter how you view your display, what you see will appear identical from all angles. Without IPS, you'll see your image differently depending on your viewing angle and even with proper calibration, your colors and contrast *may* appear differently. I always edit head on, for the most part, so I don't have this problem, but I'd never go back to a display without IPS after seeing the difference.

So, the long and short of photo editing is that if you're editing on a display that is NOT calibrated for photo editing using a professional calibration tool and NOT the buttons on your display, it doesn't matter how good the display is or is not. You still won't see your exposure, contrast and colors correctly until you've calibrated your display. Now that doesn't mean calibrating a $50 display will make your life any easier. The fact is a high quality, high-dollar display will render colors infinitely better than a cheap one, and a cheap display isn't worth calibrating because the improvement will be marginal at best and your final images will still look terrible to someone viewing them on a good, properly calibrated display. Having a good display in and of itself won't make you a better editor until you've calibrated it properly. I saw my post processing go from garbage to what it is now once I built a new PC, bought a quality display and calibrated it, and it's like night and day.

If you really want to be a wizard in Lightroom and Photoshop, invest in a good display and a quality calibration tool and get to work. I may make "Photo Editing 101" a series on here, maybe as a way to show my workflow or some behind the scenes editing, but I will almost certainly be launching a new photo series on the blog in the coming weeks. That's all I've got for now, deuces.



Selling Prints

So this blog post was inspired by something a friend posted on Facebook earlier today, and that was a link to her boyfriend's kid selling photo prints online. Inspiration comes from weird places, eh?

Anywho, the link was to a generic marketplace called Fine Art America, where they offer a bunch of pre-determined print types and sizes and take a cut for "facilitating". As a working photographer, I don't think this is the right way to sell prints, even if you're a hobbyist. Here on Squarespace, selling prints is something of a pain in the ass without the benefit of a plugin or built-in marketplace feature, and I have to manually fulfill orders. That's annoying, but it allows me to use any professional lab I want and often times, the discount I get from Adoramapix - whether it's through them running a sale or sending me a discount code - makes my profit margin worth the time it takes to manually process orders.

It's still a pain, and it's what happens when you use a portfolio-building template website that was never designed with photographers in mind, such as Squarespace. My gripes with the company are no secret, but the hassle of switching proved to be too much of an undertaking, so I live with it for the time being. With that said, there are other, much better platforms for building a photography portfolio that require absolutely no coding skills and were designed specifically for photographers.

1) Photoshelter was designed specifically for photographers, by other photographers, and has an integrated marketplace system that allows you to choose a professional lab to automatically fulfil and ship print orders without you ever having to touch the product. You get the cash, they take a little off the top and the rest goes in your pocket. I used a couple free trials with Photoshelter, to the point of building a fully functional portfolio and store that were both ready to go had I decided to make the jump.

The two biggest reasons I had for not switching - aside from some minor template design flaws that I could have probably lived with - were 1) the complete lack of an integrated blog feature like this one. Yeah, that sounds strange, but writing about random shit is a great way to draw traffic and have more people find my website, and it's something I wanted to be able to continue to do without having to pay for another domain and another Wordpress account dedicated exclusively to Tales From The Pit, and then have to go through the hassle of linking that to my Photoshelter website all while maintaining two full-time Wordpress websites. And 2) the lack of domain hosting with Photoshelter. Since my domain is hosted through Squarespace, I would have needed to buy an account at a website like, pay them to migrate my domain to their servers and host it, and then also pay them to link my domain to Photoshelter. That became too costly and, along with having to manually point my own nameservers, too complicated. Someone with more technical DNS knowledge should have an easy time doing that.

2) SmugMug was designed much in the same way as Photoshelter, but less as a portfolio-hosting platform and more thought into the marketplace and monetary aspect of being a photographer, in my opinion. Smugmug works in a pretty similar way, but I believe I was able to build an entire custom website, which proved very complicated for a guy with no web design knowledge and no desire to fumble around endlessly trying to make something out of nothing. The upshot with SmugMug was that, rather than setting your pricing for print sales, you had the option to set your profit above the lab's cost to you for the print and shipping and all that good stuff. SmugMug gets a small percentage and you keep the rest, with the ability to set, say, a 400% profit above your initial cost. That's a nice little feature and saves the math involved in pricing your prints accordingly so that you make money and aren't just selling prints for something to do.

Like Photoshelter, SmugMug partners with professional labs to automatically fulfil and ship your orders, and they get a small cut from each sale. My reasons for not switching to SmugMug from Squarespace are largely the same as my reasons for not moving to Photoshelter, in addition to the web design knowledge needed to build a functional portfolio. There was no dedicated blog feature and no way to link one, along with the inherent problem of needing to first migrate my domain to GoDaddy, who is a SmugMug partner, and then - albeit much more easily - link my domain from GoDaddy to SmugMug. Getting the domain moved away from Squarespace was the much more complicated part here, and I didn't particularly like GoDaddy when they hosted my domain for due to connectivity and functionality issues that resulted in switching hosts.

3) 500px is one I'm a little less familiar with but used a free trial of their premium (paid) services. I found their templates to be rather complicated and not very professional-friendly in the sense that it felt more like designing a portfolio for a hobbyist and not really having any major benefit to marketing myself and my services - which is something Squarespace also heavily lacks. The general confusion with building a portfolio through 500px was enough of a turnoff that I didn't get very far with them and ultimately abandoned my efforts.

The good news is they offer an entirely free place to store and share your photos, and you can advertise your services and/or license prints through their marketplace. That was the biggest benefit I found - the ability to sell licensing to companies who want to use your photos. You weren't necessarily able to set pricing, but I believe 500px starts their licensing fees at $250 and goes up from there depending on the type of license being sought, and you keep 80%. That's a huge benefit for a photographer looking to turn work they've already done into extra money on the back end, or a hobbyist looking to make some money off some cool images. Like I said, I didn't get very far with 500px, so I can't really say much more about them, but selling definitely seemed a bit easier than with Squarespace.

There are obviously other template-based website builders where you can host a portfolio or even just sell prints - Photoshelter and SmugMug also allow for client proofing with their premium packages, which is another thing Squarespace lacks and absolutely needs to address, but the partnership with many professional labs is the attractive point for someone looking to sell prints.

Now, you might be asking what labs are the best. The truth is there are so many, and there are definitely labs that are better than others, but to this point I've ultimately chosen to go with convenience and profit margin and I therefore use Adoramapix. They're local to me and only about a 15 minute drive, in addition to running somewhat frequent sales and emailing me discount codes on a regular enough basis that it's worth my time to continue using them.

But, I've also used H&H Color Lab. It's at this point that I should probably mention that I only print metals for myself, and I do offer metal prints in my store, so I can only comment on metals from personal, hands-on experience. H&H does a phenomenal job of printing, and while I have had issues with Adoramapix in terms of color rendering and scratches on the prints - and the fact that they don't store your file anywhere and have absolutely no way of recreating an exact copy of your original print should there be an issue that requires a reprint - the biggest reason outside of discounts and profit for not using H&H on an exclusive basis is that for me, I don't like the quality of their float mount or the difficulty of mounting said float on the wall.

The Adoramapix float mount is a fairly heavy, and therefore sturdy, wooden mount that comes with another wooden piece with pre-drilled holes for the screws they provide (they also give you a cool level for mounting) so that you can easily screw the mount into the wall and then seat the bracket on it. It's heavy and it's not going anywhere once it's in the wall. H&H gives you a cheap-feeling plastic mount with holes in it for placing screws that you have to take physical measurements for, mark out spots on the wall that correspond with the distance between the screw holes from both each other and the top edge of the print and bracket, then put the screws in the wall and hope they're in the right spot. I've spent so much time trying to align screws with the float mount for the two prints I got from H&H that it just wasn't worth it, and they still felt super flimsy by comparison.

The really cool thing about H&H is that, as a new customer, when your place your first order, they will give you a $50 credit which, before the price hike, bought you 1 1/2 8x12 metal prints. So I got two 8x12 metals for a grand total of $16, and they ship FedEx two-day at no charge. That's a great deal and I would recommend taking advantage of a couple free prints, but not much more than that.

There are many, many other labs, some of which I need to experiment with in the future. The two most commonly referenced labs I hear about are Bay Photo and Blazing Editions. Both seem to be a little on the pricier side, but I've seen metals - and photo prints - by Blazing Editions in person, and they seem to be the go-to choice for photographers doing gallery displays. I have no personal experience with either lab, but they're both next on my list of professional printers to try out. If you've printed at Bay Photo or Blazing Editions, I've turned on comments and I'm curious to hear about your experiences, good or bad.

That's all I've got for now. Deuces.

First Impressions: Tamron 70-200 2.9 VC G2

I recently purchased Tamron's newest entry into the telephoto market, an upgrade for their oft-praised 70-200 2.8 VC USD. The new 70-200 2.8 VC G2 features a sleek, matte black design with 5 stops of Vibration Compensation (VC) across 3 modes along with a newly-introduced focus limiter, and clocks in at a $1300 price tag. I'll start by saying that I do NOT like the placement of the switches in relation to the zoom ring, with the zoom ring being just before the hood and the switches where my palm rests, and the result is my palm constantly changes the position of the switches. That's not something I like at all.

So far, I've only *really* used it twice. I *tested* it at the Doyle concert a couple nights after it came in, but there wasn't enough light to really judge anything other than sharpness when the lens did focus, which was slow at the time - possibly due to the poor lighting - but the images, even at a high ISO (8000) were sharp, so that was a plus. A couple days later I shot high school baseball in broad daylight, so I was able to shoot at a low ISO and really get a feel for what the new Tamron 70-200 2.8 VC G2 can do.

The lens produced very sharp images, though I did experience issues with both front AND back focus. There were a few instances where, shooting through the chain-link fence, the lens would focus ON the fence rather than my subject on the other side of it. When the lens did focus correctly, I was very impressed with the results, even with some pretty heavy cropping in order to make the images tight enough for newspaper specs. The biggest issue I could find during my outing was the focus problem. Here are two sample images, the first is heavily cropped and the second, while cropped, is not cropped nearly as much. Click on the images to view them at full size.

The above images were captured WITHOUT any adjustments using the TAP-in console. As you can see, the lens is extremely sharp even when cropped significantly, and the bokeh is beautiful, in my opinion. The biggest issue so far remains front and back focus, for which Tamron sells their TAP-in console, similar to Sigma's USB dock, which allows you to microadjust compatible lenses at different focus distances. Sigma's dock allows for more detailed customization to compensate for focus issues, allowing for manual adjustments at each focusing distance from close focus to infinity across all focal lengths. Tamron's TAP-in console only allows for adjustments at close focus, a midpoint and infinity across the entire focal range of the lens.

After shooting baseball, I mounted the 70-200 2.8 VC G2 to the TAP-in console and began to adjust my focus to attempt to correct the issues I was experiencing - which occurred mostly at the 135mm and 200mm focal lengths. Here's a screenshot of the adjustments I made to my lens. It should be noted that these adjustments are specific to my copy of the Tamron 70-200 2.8 VC G2 when mounted to my specific camera body. Your needs may differ greatly from mine. Unfortunately, the software for the TAP-in utility does not allow for full screen viewing, but you can still click on the thumbnail to enlarge the photo.

So those are the adjustments I felt were necessary based on my real-world testing in addition to focus testing. I won't go into detail on how to test for front or back focus - there are great articles available online - but the short version is that you line up a row of 5 batteries (I use AA) and shoot with your lens at a 90* angle to the batteries, with your focus point set to focus on the center battery. You repeat across the focal range of the lens, at each distance from close focus to as close to infinity as you can get. I did NOT adjust for infinity because I will almost never use a telephoto lens at infinity focus, and infinity on a lens of this length is very difficult to calibrate.

Following my adjustments, I shot very briefly with the lens at the Sabaton concert, from an elevated platform side stage after the third song, just to test the lens in a real world environment, and was VERY impressed by my results. Here's a sample image:

By now it should be obvious that this lens is unbelievably sharp for its price tag, and in my opinion gives the Nikon $2800 Nikon 70-200 2.8 ED a run for its money. The colors and contrast are rendered beautifully straight out of the camera, although the above images were color corrected in post production to account for changes made by my editing process.

It's definitely worth mentioning that the lens locked focus quickly - I use back-button focus to lock on and recompose - and tracked my subject very well, with no sign of front or back focus issues following my adjustments using the TAP-in utility.

The next night I shot another concert, and this time used the 70-200 2.8 VC G2 in the photo pit, again very briefly, to see how it handled closer focusing distances following adjustments. I was impressed overall, it focused quickly enough for me to lock on and recompose, although I will say that I shot another concert on Monday in poor lighting and it did take a while to focus from the balcony a good distance from the stage. Here's one from the photo pit on Saturday night at the Testament show:

I think that focused nicely in the pit, much closer to the action, at the 70mm end wide open at f/2.8, and it locked on quickly enough. I feel like if I had a little more light, the lens would have locked focus instantly. All of my lenses struggle to focus in low light from time to time, so I wouldn't go so far as to say this is an issue with this lens specifically and more of an issue with he amount of light, over which I obviously have no control.

That brings me to the last sample photo I want to post, shot two nights after the one above, in a venue with very bad lighting. Again, the lens was a little slow to focus and from time to time would not focus at all, to the point where I had to wait for a change in lighting so I could focus and recompose my image. That's an issue, but for the amount of time I'd actually use this lens in extreme low-light situations, I think I can live with it. Here's the last sample I'll include, this time from Delain in very low light. The image itself it noisy from the high ISO, but you can see the detail is there and it's sharp once it focused.

So that's been the extent of my shooting so far with this lens. The Sabaton photo (third from the bottom) is easily my favorite and clearly the sharpest, which I think best showcases just how sharp this lens is when I don't need to crop a ton of detail out due to publishing restrictions imposed by the newspaper I freelance for. If it were up to me I'd never crop, but those baseball photos had to be cropped per my editor's instructions, and there's some detail loss as a result, but the images overall are still sharp and have enough detail to look great in a newspaper.

I haven't been able to get an actual model in front of this lens yet, but I'm hoping to do so soon. Either way, I'll be shooting some editorial with it on Saturday, indoors, in a high school gym where the lighting is probably pretty poor, in addition to shooting with the new Tamron 70-200 2.8 VC G2 as much as possible over the next week or so. I'll update this if I'm able to get a model in front of the lens, but for now and so far, I'm impressed with what Tamron's done here.

That's all I've got for now. Deuces.