How HDR Photo Editing Can Ruin Your Travel Photos

When I was hiking last year in northern Laos, I came to a break in the​ forest near the top of the hill. The view was astonishing. The sky was filled with shadowy clouds and where bright sunlight broke through cloud cover, it settled on karst formations hanging with vivid green foliage. I whipped out my DSLR and snapped some shots so I could relive it later. When I loaded up the photos that night, I was beyond disappointed. The greens were dull and the forests were too dark to make out any detail. In my longer exposures where I could see the forest, the sky was blown out. My eye (or rather my brain compensating for my eye) saw the bright colors and dramatic shadows. My camera didn’t.

The human eye is still miles better at imaging a scene than even the most powerful DSLR. That’s why spectacularly lit scenes will often look terrible on a laptop screen. Enter post-processing. On-board camera programs, be they Instagram or other native digital filters, can do all sorts of things to improve your photos. It used to be that red-eye filters were all the rage. These days, even freely available photo manipulation programs can saturate, contrast, tint, blur, invert, soften and cross process. The more powerful tools, like Lightroom and Photoshop, can do pretty much anything imaginable to a photo.

These tools are a blessing, but unfortunately they’re not inherently good for travel photography. These tools are just as readily used for evil. For every photographer who has fixed a screwy white balance in post-processing, there’s another who has maxed out the saturation bar in Picasa or applied an infrared effect just for the hell of it. I, too, have been guilty of these sins. But if there’s one image-editing gimmick that really brings out the pitchforks, it’s HDR: high-dynamic-range imaging.

You’ve certainly seen HDR images before. They’re often eye-wateringly vivid and look off. High-dynamic-range imaging allows a photographer to take multiple exposures of the same scene, and combine them digitally to achieve a better combination of light and dark in the photo. Say you’re trying to capture a beautiful sunset. The range of light intensity is simply too high for any standard camera to pick up both foreground details and the beauty of the sky. HDR offers a magical digital fix for this problem.

Early HDR techniques were massively involved and complicated. Even when digital photography came around, computers were still too slow to handle the complex algorithms. But now, it’s extremely easy for anyone to apply the effect to any photo. In business terms, the barriers to entry are low and everyone’s doing it. The glut of faux-HDR filters and simple HDR compositors like Photomatix has opened the door to runaway misuse. Few people use HDR correctly. And when done incorrectly, HDR images look terrible.

The point of HDR imaging is to make the image look more natural. The high range of tones that the camera can’t pick up by itself can be manipulated and expressed digitally. More often than not, though, HDR images end up looking fake and weird. Why is that? Simply, it’s because people tend to go overboard with the effect. Since the shadows and highlights are easily manipulated during the process, it’s easy to end up with glowing buildings, apocalyptic clouds and cartoonish people. The key to proper HDR use is restraint. The effect works best if no one can tell you’ve used it. If you apply HDR to a set of exposures or you’ve used an HDR filter, ask yourself: Does this scene look real? If it looks weird, don’t use HDR. If you think it looks cool anyway, it probably doesn’t. It looks weird, and don’t use HDR.

Take a look at these two photos, which don’t glow and hum with cartoon colors, but rather use HDR to highlight shadows and tones that would be impossible to capture in one exposure.

Even the second one gets a little saturation-happy. It just goes to show you that it’s easy to let the reins slip.

The backlash against HDR has been extreme. If you Google “HDR sucks” you get numerous websites decrying the glowy menace. Sample blog titles include: “I Hate Your HDR“; “HDR Is Stupid And It Sucks“; and the somewhat hyperbolic “HDR Is Bad For Amurrica, And Kills Kittens.” There is a subreddit devoted to shaming particularly egregious examples. Even the Washington Post was obliged to explain itself after it used and HDR photo on its front page.

When you’re traveling and you’re desperate to capture an unforgettable scene, oftentimes using HDR is the only way to pick up on the light and tone variation that your eye is loving. But everyone knows that the Hong Kong skyline doesn’t glow white in the day, and that forests aren’t technicolor. If you’re going to use HDR, show some restraint and don’t just slap on filters willy-nilly. As for me, I deleted my crappy photos of the Laos jungle. My memory of the scene is more vividly colored anyway.

Take a gander at these egregious uses of HDR, and think long and hard if you want your travel photos to look like stills from “A Scanner Darkly.”


Gadling Gear Review: Nikon 1 J2 Digital Camera

Over the past couple of years, one of the fastest growing segments of the digital camera market has been the compact interchangeable lens systems. These cameras feature the small bodies of a traditional point-and-shoot with the ability to swap lenses like a DSLR, giving them plenty of versatility without adding undue size or weight. Options from Sony, Panasonic and Samsung have been extremely popular, but it was Nikon’s first entry, the 1 J1, that really caught the attention of the mainstream market. Now, a year later, the company has updated the diminutive shooter, making some minor but welcome changes to an already impressive and fun camera.

The Nikon 1 J2 retains its predecessor’s small body and classic good looks, while upgrading the built-in screen with a much higher resolution display. Considering the camera doesn’t have a viewfinder of any kind, this revamped screen is definitely a nice addition. Featuring richer colors and a higher level of illumination, the new display gives a better indication of what your photos will look like, while also performing better in bright, outdoor conditions. Other improvements include a new metallic body available in several colors, and updates to the 1 system’s internal software that gives photographers more creative control over their images.

When the J1, and its big brother the V1, were released last year, they were soundly criticized for Nikon’s choice of sensor. While most of its competitors used sensors with sizes ranging from 12 to 16 megapixels, Nikon elected to employ a smaller 10.1 MP option. That hasn’t changed at all in the J2, even as competitors have continued to improve their sensors. But the smaller CX-format that Nikon uses still takes excellent photos with great color reproduction, even if the resulting images aren’t as large as those captured by other ILS cameras. The smaller sensor allows for the more compact body found on the 1 system and any photographer will tell you that the number of megapixels is a bit overrated anyway. Smaller sensors do suffer poorer performance in low light conditions, however, so keep that in mind when deciding which camera best fits your needs.If there is one area that all of the Nikon 1 cameras excel, it is in their speed. They are amazingly fast at focusing on subjects and they are capable of shooting in bursts of 5 fps on their quickest settings. That performance isn’t matched by the competition just yet and comes in handy when shooting travel photos, particularly when you want to quickly capture those oh so fleeting moments. While using the J2, I was continually impressed with how fast it performed, never failing to capture the image I was hoping for. It even does a fantastic job at shooting photos of wildlife and fast moving sporting events, two subjects that can put demands on even the best cameras.

Much like the camera body itself, the lenses designed for the Nikon 1 system are compact, lightweight and perform well. Nikon has long been known for making excellent lenses and that heritage shines through here. I tested both the 10-30mm kit lens and the 30-110mm telephoto zoom. Both take great photos, focus exceedingly quickly and have built-in vibration reduction, which helps in keeping images sharp even when at full zoom. Both lenses cleverly incorporate a small button on the focus ring that allows you to turn the camera on simply by twisting them into position. This comes in very handy when trying to quickly capture shots without fumbling for the tiny power button on the top of the camera.

Nikon has designed the 1 system to be incredibly easy to use and as such, those advancing from a point-and-shoot camera are likely to feel right at home. But if you’re a DSLR user who enjoys the full control that those cameras offer, you may feel a bit frustrated with the options for controlling shutter speeds or aperture priority offered here. Those controls are available of course, but they aren’t on a mode dial as you might expect. You’ll find them instead buried on menus and you’ll have to use the screen to access them. It can be a bit ponderous to change those settings at times, particularly if you’re doing it often or have to do it quickly. It seems clear that Nikon saw this camera as an upgrade for those who are use to shooting in automatic mode rather than fiddling with the settings. But those of us who have been using a DSLR for awhile, and simply want a good option that can shave weight from our packs without sacrificing control, will find these limitations a bit challenging at first.

I’d be remiss in writing a review of the J2 if I didn’t mention that it is an excellent option for shooting video as well. The camera is capable of capturing 1080p HD video at 30 fps or 1080i at 60 fps. Quality is excellent and when used with the variety of lenses available for the 1 system, the camera provides performance that exceeds that of a dedicated video camera, allowing us to save further room in our bags. Just make sure you have extra memory cards along on your trip, as HD video can eat up storage space very quickly.

As someone who likes to travel light, and is always looking for ways to save weight in my bags, the thought of a small and lightweight camera system with interchangeable lenses has always been intriguing. The Nikon 1 V2 definitely lives up to my hopes for the category, making it one of the best travel cameras I have ever used. I love that it is fast, takes beautiful photos and is actually fun to use. The fact that it tips the scale at about a half-pound, with the battery and kit lens installed, doesn’t hurt either. While that is obviously considerably more than your average point-and-shoot, it is also a lot less than a DSLR.

Not that there isn’t room for improvement in the J2. The 10.1 MP sensor is very good, but a larger sensor would improve performance in a variety of key areas. The built-in flash is also rather flimsy and feels fragile as well and I would have preferred better overall battery life. The J2’s battery isn’t necessarily terrible, but when you’re used to using a DSLR, it was a bit disappointing. I’d also prefer an actual viewfinder of some type, but we’ll need to jump up to the larger and more expensive V1, or the newly announced V2, for that option.

Travelers looking for a great option for capturing their latest adventures are likely to love the Nikon 1 J2. Its combination of image quality, ease of use and compact size makes it a perfect choice for those trips in which you want to travel light without compromising your photography. The options for choosing different lenses gives this camera a level of versatility that can’t be found in a point-and-shoot, while its light weight is a huge plus over bulkier DSLRs. The camera even comes with a lightweight price tag. Nikon starts the J2 out at just $549.95 including the 10-30mm lens. That is a competitive price for a camera that will accompany you on many fantastic trips ahead.

[Photos credit: Nikon]

Storing Travel Photos, Let Us Count The Ways

In the olden days of storing travel photos when hard drive memory filled up, travelers turned to a variety of external storage devices to manage the shots they had take along the way. Zip Drives, Memory Sticks, DVDs and other forms of storage have all had their day. Today, a variety of storage devices, cloud storage like Google Drive and even social media oriented storage options offer more choices than ever. But which is right for you? Let’s take a look at the options available right now.

External Hard Drives
External hard drives came down in price and up in storage – going from over $500 for a few
Gigabytes (GB) down to about $100 for a Terabyte (TB) of storage – and still offer an affordable option. iPhone users can turn to Apple’s Time Capsule with continuous backup of their Macs and 2 or 3TB of storage. Western Digital, among other manufacturers, offers up to 16TB of storage. Nice to know: lots of space for storing travel photos, but not convenient to take on the road.

Flash Drives
Moving and sharing photos became easier too with flash drives like
Kingston’s 16GB model for around $20, which works for many travelers who might later move that 16GB of photos to another source when travel is complete. Eco-friendly flash drives, too, have been popular with business, replacing brochures and packets of printed information.

Cloud Storage
Remote cloud storing travel photos from a variety of sources is where we are right now and using one or more services offers some distinct advantages.

First, if our hardware device is lost or stolen, all our digital photos are not. Safe and secure in the cloud, we can access them from anywhere in the world. Most travelers can store a huge number of photos for free from a variety of sources like Google Drive, a file and synchronization service that rolled out last April.

Google Drive gives users 5GB of storage free, with more available for a fee – 25GB runs $2.49 a month by subscription and storage can be up to 2TB in size. Google Drive is also now the home of GoogleDocs, a suite of productivity applications offering sharing and collaboration of documents, spreadsheets and presentations too.

But is cloud storage of travel photos safe?

The short answer: yes.

“Photos are safer when stored on line,” says Suzanne Kantra from Techlicious in a USA Today article, adding “files are encrypted on most major cloud storage sites” and “unless you are a celebrity, your family photos are only valuable to you,” concluding that “most of our photos aren’t worth a hacker’s time and effort.”

Other cloud-oriented services like Flickr offer a great deal of storage for free then charge a fee for premium accounts with more storage. But using a variety of sources can eliminate the fees and provide some redundancy for critical shots, which can be stored on multiple sites for the most severe skeptics.

Social Clouds
Many travelers choose to shoot and upload on the go to social sites like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest that share their journey as it unfolds.
HipGeo is a convenient journaling app that enables travelers to keep track of what they saw and where they saw it. Users then share their travels and use what other people share to enhance their own travel experiences.

In a new release, HipGeo instantly transforms all those elements into virtual journals that can then be automatically shared a variety of ways. A new one, ThisLife, allows users to store 1000 photos and uses geotagging to create a timeline of all photos uploaded, making finding them easier. ThisLife wants to be the permanent home for all our photos

Regardless of what device or cloud storage service we use, there are a bunch to choose from so look for one that seems like it will be good in the future too. I used Webshots for years but compared to other options today, I find it clumsy and difficult to use. At the time it was one of the few choices available, but today there are so many to choose from that picking the right one for your needs is critical.

Facebook, for example, is limited to tagging, likes and comments. If users want to order prints or search for photos, they are out of luck. Probably of more importance, what happens when Facebook is not their primary place to go. Let’s not forget MySpace right? Thinking that way, a service that is totally photo-focused like Flickr, Snapfish or Picassa might be the best choice.

Each individual traveler’s photo storage decision might depend on the volume of photos we are talking about too. For most non-professional photographers, just regular people who travel, a good free cloud-based service will probably be just fine. For mega-users, premium cloud storage sites like SmugMug, PhotoShelter or ZenFolio might be better.

Today there are so many options to choose from when storing travel photos that travelers can surely find one that will work for them now and in the future. Check CNET’s “Google Drive is not for everyone, so try these alternatives or a variety of articles from our friends at Engadget about photo storing for more information.

[Flickr photo by Gilderic Photography]

5 Reasons Why A Digital Camera Is Better Than A Smartphone For Travel Photos

There is an old adage in photography that says the best camera is the one that you have with you at any given time. This holds especially true in the age of smartphones, which have evolved into solid shooters over the past few years. Owning a smartphone is a lot like having a decent point and shoot camera on you at all times, which has, for good or ill, allowed us to share many more personal moments on Facebook and Twitter.

I’ll admit that on more than one occasion I’ve used my iPhone 4S to take some shots to quickly share with friends and family. It is incredibly fun and convenient to take a photo and then immediately send it along to loved ones to enjoy as well. Image quality is, for the most part, more than acceptable and there is a certain level of intimacy that can be garnered by sharing important moments as they happen.

That said, those that use a smartphone as their primary camera while traveling continue to confound me. Yes they are lightweight and easy to use, but they are also lacking in certain fundamental features that a dedicated digital camera will always bring to the table. Those features make them better suited for travel photography and greatly improve the quality of the images as well. I’m not even talking about higher end DSLR cameras either. A good point and shoot will still be a better tool for travel photography than any smartphone.

With that in mind, here are five reasons why this is the case.Optical Zoom
Most compact cameras will come with at least some level of optical zoom but the same cannot be said of smartphones. Optical zoom uses the physical lenses of the camera to manipulate the image and make objects appear closer. This allows the photographer to get clear images of their subjects even when they are a considerable distance away. The higher the optical zoom the further you’ll be able zoom in, which is particularly handy when capturing just the right shot while traveling.

On the other hand, digital zoom will actually make the image itself larger causing a loss in quality in the process. The further you zoom in digitally, the more the image suffers. Most cameras will have a higher level of digital zoom than optical, but I generally avoid using it at all costs. The loss of detail and image quality simply isn’t worth the minor benefits of digital zoom for me.

Battery Life
Another area that a dedicated camera stands out versus a smartphone is in battery life. I own three different point and shoot cameras and each of them is capable of being used on a weeklong trip without having to recharge their batteries. That comes in awfully handy when traveling through remote places where recharging might not be an easy option. In contrast to that, a smartphone is generally lucky if it can make it through a full day, particularly if it is being used as a camera on top of all of its other functions. True, you can get battery extenders for your phone, but at that point you might as well be carrying a P&S camera anyway.

Simply put, a decent dedicated camera will out perform a smartphone in nearly every way. They tend to start up and shoot faster, offer burst-modes, have much better image stabilization, and reproduce more realistic colors. A good point and shoot will capture fast action shots without blurriness and will autofocus more quickly as well. More sophisticated cameras will even allow the photographer to control his or her shutter speed, aperture settings and ISO levels. In contrast, most smartphones have very few options at all and simply let you capture an image that is processed automatically.

I use my smartphone for a lot of things, and even though it has 16GB of storage, it is usually close to being full at any given time. I have music, apps, movies, photos and more on the device, which means if I start using it as my primary camera, I could easily run out of space before the end of a trip. The memory card in a camera on the other hand is generally only used to store photos and video. They also tend to be very reliable, inexpensive and easy to swap out when they get full. True, some smartphones allow users to add memory cards as well, but they are typically not as easy to access from the device and swapping them can often be a real challenge.

More Than The Sum Of Its Parts
Many consumers are under the erroneous assumption that the more megapixels a camera has the better the images will be. This has led some to believe that their old 5-megapixel point and shoot isn’t nearly as good as the shiny new 8-megapixel camera on their smartphone. The truth is, megapixels are just a small part of the equation. The size of a camera’s sensor, quality of lenses, level of optical zoom, flash and other components all play a role in creating the photo. In most cases, a dedicated camera is still well ahead of the curve in each of those areas when compared to a smartphone.

For me personally, my travel photos are the most important images that I shoot with my camera. Not only are they used to compliment my writing, but they are also shared with family and friends. Occasionally one even gets developed, framed and hung on the wall at my apartment. It is important to me that they are of the highest quality possible and for that reason I simply can’t trust a smartphone to capture the images I want.

As someone who likes to travel light I’d love to be able to shave a few pounds off my luggage by leaving my heavier camera equipment at home in favor of using my iPhone. But I’m not willing to sacrifice quality in my photography, so for now I’ll proudly continue to take my DSLR and a point and shoot into the field when I travel. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

[Photo credit: Tom Photos and Pierre Bauduin via WikiMedia]

Gadling gear review: Nikon CoolPix AW100 camera

Buying a digital camera is no easy task these days. As cameras have grown in popularity, the market has become flooded with dozens of models, all with a dizzying array of features and specs, and few ways to distinguish one from the next. Aside from minor variations in shape and color, most of them all look about the same, and it is difficult to know which one is the best fit for each of our individual needs. That simply isn’t the case for the new Nikon CoolPix AW100, which not only has a unique look, but an identity all of its own. This is a camera that is built for travel, and will have a great appeal to adventure travelers in particular.

After removing the AW100 from its box, the first thing you’ll notice is how solid it feels in your hands. The ruggedized body conveys the sense that this is a camera that can take a lot of punishment, which makes it a great option for those excursions that take us to the far flung corners of the planet. The AW100’s tough shell keeps it waterproof to 33-feet, while allowing it to withstand temperatures down to 14ºF and survive drops up to five feet in height. Those qualities alone help to set it apart from nearly any other digital camera on the market and make it an attractive option for scuba divers, climbers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who demand a high level of performance out of their gear.

Don’t let this camera’s rugged body fool you however, because under the hood, it has plenty of brains to go along with its brawny exterior. This CoolPix features a 16 megapixel CMOS sensor that not only takes fantastic photos, but also manages to capture video in full 1080p HD as well. It has a vibrant 3-inch screen, an easy to use (and understand!) interface and Nikon’s new Action Controls, which make the AW100 a snap to operate, even while wearing gloves.Perhaps my favorite bit of technology included in this camera is its GPS functionality, which allows you to geotag your photos automatically. This nifty little feature embeds a bit of locational data into your photo files, which when shared with friends and family allows them to see exactly where they were taken on a map. The camera’s GPS functionality extends beyond that however, as Nikon has included a built in world map, that includes thousands of points of interest, and an electronic compass. That means that you can use the AW100 to navigate just like any other handheld GPS device, which is definitely a handy feature to have in a pinch. Be warned however, as with all things GPS, using this feature does burn through the battery at a faster clip.

As you might expect from a camera built by Nikon, the image quality produced by the AW100 is very good. Photos were sharp and detailed, with excellent color reproduction, even on action shots. The fact that it has the ability to shoot as many as 3 photos per second ensures that you can always get the photo you’re looking for and helps to set this camera out from the pack as well. I would have liked to have seen better low light performance however, both in terms of photos and video, but that is one area in which nearly all point and shoot cameras struggle.

The Coolpix AW100 stands out in a lot of ways. It has a nice, smooth, autofocus with a variety of settings, it comes with 20 pre-set scene modes for quick and easy adjustment to your subject matter, and it even has a variety of built-in options for editing photos right on the camera. One area that it does lag behind a number of competitors however is in the optical zoom department. Nikon was only able to incorporate a 5x zoom into the AW100, although that is more likely a by-product of the ruggedized design rather than some technical issue. Longer zoom lens extend out from the body, which make them more susceptible to damage and would make it more difficult to keep the camera waterproof. It does have the option for an additional 4x digital zoom of course, but we all know you want to avoid using digital zoom as much as possible.

With a price tag of $380, the AW100 isn’t the cheapest option available in a point and shoot either. If you drop by your local big box electronics store, you’re likely to find numerous cameras on display at a lower price point. But that said, few are so well designed for travel, and adventure travel in particular. Because this camera is waterproof, shockproof, and freezeproof, it will quickly become a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts and extreme sports junkies alike. After all, this is a camera that you can take with you from the depths of the ocean to the top of a mountain, shooting great photos and video the entire way. This is a device that is versatile, tough, and fun to use and – as someone who owns several digital cameras – it feels great to not have to worry about breaking it while on an active outing.

If you’re in the market for a new point and shoot camera that takes great photos and can withstand the rigors of active travel, the Nikon CoolPix AW100 is an excellent choice. It is a compact, lightweight, option for travelers who expect a high level of performance out of their gear, even when they abuse it in the field. This camera can take everything you throw at it and still deliver the goods, and that brings a nice sense of confidence no matter where you go.