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I decided to start posting up the occasional project car post for restoration and upgrades I’m doing on our family’s Lexus IS300 Sportcross.  Let’s call the series “Project Sportcross”.

We had a heck of a time finding a decent Sportcross, which is the wagon version of the sporty IS300.  For months every Sportcross we found for sale was outrageously priced for its condition, or more often than not, it had a salvage title.  It’s amazing how many of these cars have been wrecked, salvaged and are back on the market.  The prices are reasonable for those, but who knows if the frame is straight or what electrical gremlins you’ll uncover.

So this clean titled black-on-black one popped up for sale in the San Francisco bay area and we made the 12 hour round trip to pick it up on the very day it was offered on the lot.  It certainly has things to fix, but they’re mostly cosmetic, like paint, fabric dying, trim replacement.  While we originally bought this car for the wife, I actually love putting it through its paces.  Put it in sport mode, take off traction control and use the shift buttons on the steering wheel and it’s a blast to drive.  Being a wagon, it gets looks from those enthusiasts who know, but doesn’t get a second glace from police and other undesirables.

So I’ll be posting up the occasional update on it’s restoration and upgrade progress.  This week, I tackled the fogged headlight restoration.

For this project I used a 3M Headlight Restoration kit ($13 on Amazon), some elbow grease (free!), and finally an XPEL headlight protective film kit ($48 on Amazon).  For far less than the cost of new light housings, I brought the OEM ones back to life.  Basically, the process involved a couple different grits of dry sandpaper to remove the yellowed exterior layer of plastic, which initially leaves the lens extremely fogged looking.

Yellowed and hazy IS300 headlight, before reconditioning with 3M Headlight Restoration kit.

Yellowed, pitted, and hazy IS300 headlight, before reconditioning with 3M Headlight Restoration kit.












First step in headlight recondition is removing the outer layer of plastic with rough grit sandpapers.  It looks worse before it looks better.  The whole time you're worried you just committed yourself to shelling out $500 for new headlight housings.

First step in headlight recondition is removing the outer layer of plastic with rough grit sandpapers. It looks worse before it looks better. The whole time you’re worried you just committed yourself to shelling out $500 for new headlight housings.
Then we move to progressively finer grits and wet-sanding to polish the plastic.

Half way through it's looking much better.  I'm convinced at this point now, that I'm at least back to the way it was pre-restoration and won't be on the hook for new housings.

Half way through it’s looking much better. I’m convinced at this point now, that I’m at least back to the way it was pre-restoration and won’t be on the hook for new housings.















The final step uses a nice 3M polish and foam applicator to really shine the lenses back to new.  I could have left it at that, but the lenses probably would have glazed over again in a few years, so I wanted to protect the investment with the XPEL film kit.  The film is precut to fit the lenses and goes on with an alcohol/water mist, which is then squeegeed out, adhering the film to the lens.  Some areas needed a heat gun to get the the thick film to conform to the compound curves, but it all worked out well.  Now the lenses should remain crystal clear, produce better light projection and cutoff, and stay free of rock chips for a very long time.  Clear lenses make the car look much better and increase its value during reselling.  For $61 and about two hours of work, I’d recommend anyone take it on.

Lenses refinished and protected by the XPEL precut film.  They look new and perform much better.

Lenses refinished and protected by the XPEL precut film. They look new and perform much better.

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The last few days I’ve been busy getting my darkroom area set up, and it’s nearly done and ready for developing and printing.  The safelight has been installed, darkroom sink plumbed, and yesterday I cut new glass to refurbish my NuArc UV exposure unit for printing handmade alt-process prints.  In the next few days I hope to get back to testing my carbon-transfer process using that fancy color chart and step wedge you see on the table there.  Lots of testing ahead I’m sure, given I tried off and on for over a year in Hawaii to get a decent print and failed.  It’s that hard of a process if your environmental conditions aren’t dialed in.  In Hawaii the humidity and some other factors prevented me from succeeding, but I’m starting from scratch with a better workspace here, so I’m anticipating better results.
But before I can print, I need a light tight cabinet to dry sensitized films and tissues in, as well as some beakers and protective gear for mixing up my chemistry.  That is next on my list this week.  Hoping to have print updates soon thereafter.

Wet area on left, dry area on right.  Temp/humidity gauges, glass plates and reference texts...oh and a Brownie Camera to refurbish.

Wet area on left, dry area on right. Temp/humidity gauges, glass plates and reference texts…oh and a Brownie Camera to refurbish.

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ISO 640 Shadow Noise Comparison

News flash: If you’re shooting RAW images on your DSLR and using either the on-screen preview image or camera histogram to judge your exposures, your camera is lying to you and giving you too much noise and an inferior image range.

Okay, maybe “news flash” is a bit alarmist, as this has been covered before, but we decided to run our own test on our Canon 5D MKII body to test it’s noise floor at all ISOs, then test the difference between the “proper” exposure and what exposure is needed to maximize the image data in RAW format at any given ISO.

Noise Test
For the noise test we simply put the lens cap on, set the camera to 1/250 @ f/8 and made one exposure per ISO from “Low” to “High”. This gave us 21 black-looking images.

The images were imported into Lightroom 3 with zereod out exposure, blacks, bright/contrast, noise reduction, tone curve, sharpness, etc. Then we modified the tone curve Dark setting to +100, and the Shadows setting to +100 to make the noise more visible.

Switching back and forth between Lightroom slides can make it hard to judge which exposure is noisier than another. It helps to look at the contact sheet here to see which images are darker than their neighbors.

ISO noise test for Canon 5D MKII

ISO noise test for Canon 5D MKII (click through twice to see larger version)

The darker images have less noise than lighter images. ISO 50 (Low) looks pretty good, and then the next best is ISO 160, which surprisingly looks better than both 100 and 125. Noise starts to climb again from 200 to 250, then drops at 320. Similar results from 400 to 500, then again a drop at 640. Same with 800 to 1000, then a drop at 1250. But after 1250 the noise looks pretty linear all the way up to the “High” setting. This shows that the camera sensor doesn’t have a totally linear noise gain as ISOs climb. Certain higher ISOs are better for shooting less noisy images.

The reason we’re testing this isn’t just to find the best ISOs to shoot at with the lowest noise. It’s going to be the foundation for testing our proper RAW exposure settings, which incidentally will reduce noise among other things. So why test at inherently noise ISOs when we can start off with our proven least noisy ISOs?

RAW Exposure Test
So here’s the deal: Your camera preview image and histogram represent an in-camera processed JPEG, not the actual data in the RAW file. We were always told not to base our exposures on the image since we couldn’t calibrate the screen, but now we know the histogram isn’t even accurate either. What’s a photog to do? Well…test!

Our set up isn’t super scientific, but it was more important for consistency between shots than anything else. So we set up one Alien Bees B800 strobe over an Xrite ColorChecker Color Rendition Chart, a blank piece of white paper and a cup that was lined with black felt to provide a solid shadow on the felt background. The felt background gave us a texture to judge our final shadow detail range and noise levels off of, particularly in the shadow of the cup. The camera set up consists of a Canon 5D MKII, with no noise reduction settings, and a 70-200L IS lens. Exposures were determined with a Sekonic L-508 light meter. Bracket exposures were adjusted by varying the flash output, not the lens aperture, which would have introduced sharpness and contrast variations.

As an example for ISO 640, the camera and light meter were both set to ISO 640. The light meter determined our normal exposure to be f/16. After setting the camera to f/16, where it will stay for the duration of the test, we adjusted the strobe to underexpose the first shot by one stop, so we monkeyed with the strobe setting until our light meter gave us a reading of f/11. Then we made our first exposure with the camera. We followed the same strobe adjustment method from -1 stop to +2 stops in 1/3 stop increments, since our camera ISO, shutter speeds and apertures follow a 1/3 stop interval. If your camera does ½ or whole stops only, those would be your intervals to test at.

RAW Exposure Test Setup

RAW Exposure Test Setup (looks like our cell camera could use some noise reduction!)

After capturing our range of ISOs and under/overexposures for each, we imported everything into Lightroom 3. Our first step was to sync our color balance across all images, and we also tagged each ISO’s “normal” exposure with a single star so we could more easily reference them later. We also zereod out the exposure, fill, blacks, tone curve, sharpening and noise reduction settings across all images.

Then we focused on one ISO series of shots, starting with the +2 exposure. Our goal is to use the Exposure slider to bring the image back down to where the brightest whites are just below their clipping level. You can see them clipping by either clicking the upper right arrow in the LR histogram box, or by holding your Alt button down as you adjust the slider. In our case the +2 was too overexposed to retain any detail, even with the slider at -4. The camera sensor is effectively saturated with photons and can’t record any highlight info to the RAW file. So we try the same method on the +1.6 exposure for that ISO. For our ISO 160, +1.6 was still clipping, but for ISO 640, this +1.6 exposure was perfect. Just shows you that things aren’t linear and that you should test for all possibilities.

For ISO 640, our highlight clipping disappeared at -1.15. This is the amount of exposure correction needed then for ISO 640 images captured at +1.6 exposure. Knowing this combination we can now make a Lightroom preset to normalize our “overexposed” shots upon import, for any ISO you test!

We haven’t tested all ISOs, but here are our settings from what we’ve tested as of this writing:
ISO L (50): +.3 exposure, -.75 LR exposure slider
ISO 160: +1.3 exposure, -1.15 LR exposure slider
ISO 640: +1.6 exposure, -1.15 LR exposure slider

The “Low” ISO didn’t deviate too much from the factory setting, but the higher ISOs definitely benefit from some overexposure during capture. These overexposed shots looked clipped on the camera screen/histogram during capture, but retained plenty of highlight info in the RAW version. So there is definitely a disconnect between the in-camera processed JPEG preview and the actual RAW file info.

The magic of all this lies in comparing the new normalized image to the old normal exposure. Find your tagged one-star normal image and compare it with the new normalized image in side-by-side mode in the library module. What we see is a significant amount of noise reduction and more shadow detail, particularly at the higher ISOs. In this screenshot of the ISO 640 side-by-side we can see that the normalized image on the right has better shadow texture, better shadow transition gradation on the cup, and less noise. In the ISO 160 side-by-side, you can even see the cup separation from the felt background in the dark shadow area in the normalize image on the right.

ISO 640 Shadow Noise Comparison

ISO 640 Shadow Noise Comparison (click through twice for larger version)

ISO 160 Shadow Noise Comparison

ISO 160 Shadow Noise Comparison (click through twice for larger version)

ISO 640 Color Noise Comparison

ISO 640 Color Noise Comparison (click through twice for larger version). The colors are shifted a tad, but the noise we're concerned about is noticeably less in the normalize version on the right.

Because we’ve overexposed during capture, commonly called Expose To The Right (ETTR), we effectively shifted our data up toward the upper areas of the tonal range, where sensors record more information. As a result we don’t have a true black on our normalized histogram, so we can fiddle with the black setting or tone curve to bring some black tones back in. How much really depends on how high or low key your subject matter is, and you’ll probably have to do adjust this on a case by case basis.

For those of you who shoot primarily for highlight details and don’t give two flips about shadow detail or overall range, these tests may not matter much. Since the camera is inherently underexposing a bit, you’re in no danger of clipping your highlight detail. But for people who want to exploit their sensor’s maximum dynamic range, have less noise, smoother shadow gradients and more shadow detail, knowing your camera’s true RAW capture exposures will help.

What are you thoughts on this? Can you think of other tests we should run or ways these results could be useful?

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Photographer Zack Arias’ “Transform” is a short film offering a touching and insightful look at the process a photographer (or any artist) goes through during a creative slump. It poses serious questions about why we choose a career in art, how seriously we should take ourselves, and the recognition that you never stop growing as an artist and professional. Artists and non-artists alike will glean something from this terrific film. Kudos to Zack for hanging his ego and doubts out there for the benefit of the rest of us. See his work and wonderful blog at: www.zarias.com

What is your experience with overcoming creative slumps or realizing your true purpose of your art?

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We’re performing a much needed overhaul on our site. It will be easier to navigate, offer better quality slideshows with embedded videos, enable easier contact and offer other features.

Please check back around 8/1/11 for our new site.

In the meantime, you can view our off-site portfolios at:
ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) – Click here for portfolio
APA (American Photographic Artists) – Click here for portfolio

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