This is 12mm on Full Frame – Personal review of Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG ASP HSM II

Mont Saint Michel in France is an island half a mile of the coast of Normandy. It's an old monastery, which is an architectural master piece, that is surrounded by a small village. The village has got a small chapel as well. And this is the small chapel. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

Nikon D800, Sigma 12-24mm, ISO 400, f/8.0, 0.8 sec (0-exposure)

This photo is from the small church in Mont Saint Michel, France, just outside the huge monastery.

In my review of Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800 and Nikon D600/D610 (you might want to read it here), I described my considerations on ultra wide angled lenses, and how it eventually made me switch from Canon to Nikon. A switch that first was more or less cost free, because I focused on fewer lenses, but as I have bought the lenses again, has become a very expensive switch.

For reasons I can’t explain clearly, I missed the fact, that Sigma does an extremely ultra wide angled 12-24mm zoom lens, for full frame cameras. I think the reason I missed it, might be that both Nikon and Canon does a 12-24mm for cropped sensors, and I just put the Sigma lens in the same basket, and that was a mistake!

Had I noticed this Sigma lens much earlier, I would probably never have changed from Canon to Nikon, because it is the ultra wide angle that I wanted. I do not regret the move from Canon to Nikon today, after having come to know and love the Nikons.

Why is it that you want to have an extremely wide angled lens? For me, it is to be able to include everything in a tight spot, like this very small church on Mont Saint Michel in France.

This is shot at 12mm on a Full frame camera. Even at 14mm I wouldn’t have been able to capture both arches, and include the alter in the near one, at the same time. I would have had to make a compromise on the composition and lose something.

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How to take photos while driving

We drove from Cherbourg in Normandy to Saint Malo in Brittany while the sun was setting. I opened the window and shot this tree. Not two sunsets are alike, and I would love to photograph each single one of them. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8, ISO 100, 27mm, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec

Rule number #1 – Don’t ever drive the car and take pictures at the same time!

The shot above is shot while driving from Cherbourg in Normandy to Saint Malo in Brittany. I got this scene in the neighborhood of Saint Mere Eglise. There was a beautiful sunset, but we would arrive late and couldn’t afford the time to stop to take any photos. But with the right configuration of the camera and some training, you can get good photos and sometimes even great photos out of the window of a driving car.

We’ve been on a few road trip vacations and a thing you just can’t do is to stop every two minutes to take a photograph. It just doesn’t work with the family (and schedule). But don’t get too frustrated! Let your spouse do a lot of the driving and arm yourself with a lens that allows some zooming, but not too much. My preferred lens is a 24-70mm on a full frame camera, which would be something like 18-55mm if you have a cropped sensor camera.

One thing you can’t do while driving 60 mph is to adjust the camera – you have to have some overall working quite good settings.

Then configure your camera to the following settings (look up in your manual if you are unsure how to do it), and then you will be just fine shooting:

Step 1: Fast shutter speed.

If the photos are blurred or shaken, you can’t use them. Shutter speed is the one control you have to set fixed to 1/1250. This is fast enough to freeze a straw of grass even close to the car, while driving 60 mph. Put your camera on S (if you have a Nikon) or Tv (if you have a Canon). This will allow you to set the shutter speed to a fixed speed. Dial until you see 1/1250 in the display.

I started out on 1/1000 sec but I have decreased it one notch to 1/1250 sec.

Step 2: Focal length

You can’t zoom too far in for two reasons. Number 1, you can’t frame anything, because the car is rumbling. Better to take a bit wider photos and then crop them in the post processing. The further you zoom in, the faster the shutter speed will have to be. Of cause you could make an even faster shutter speed, but you would then put more strain on other factors of the camera and you will risk ending up with unusuable photos.

You can’t go too wide either, because you then include the car. Most of my successful shots are between 24mm and 70mm (or 18mm 55mm on a cropped sensor).

Step 3: Auto ISO

You don’t have time to test what ISO you should set the camera to. You only have one chance on each photo. By setting the camera to auto-ISO you let the camera decide what f-stop to use and what ISO to use. It does this quite well – your camera is quite clever.

Step 4: Under expose a little bit

It’s better to slightly under expose a photo than slightly over expose it. Why? Because blown out parts doesn’t look very good to the eye, while black parts are much easier accepted. I have found that if I set my Nikon cameras to an exposure compensation (the +/- button on the camera) to -2/3 of an exposure, I rarely get blown out highlights, if it is broad daylight.

In more difficult lighting situations I shoot exposure bracketed hand held. I know that I will not be able to use them for HDR because they will be different photos, but I can use the best exposure.

In the cause of the photo above I had set the camera to take a -2, -1 and a 0, and with the exposure compensation of -2/3 I got some weird exposures like -2 2/3 and -1 2/3 and -2/3. But never mind the numbers, just shoot away! I got a good exposure at -1 2/3 and that one I used for the photo above.

Step 5: Focusing

You can either set the auto-focus to the center or you can use manual focus. It depends a bit on the focal length you are using and what you are trying to hit. In this particular photo I used manual focus and set it to infinity, because the light was fading and I had trouble getting the camera to focus at all.

Step 6: Learn to read the landscape

You then have to learn to read the landscape passing by. You don’t get a lot of time to react and when you see a great photo it is too late to shoot it. You have to read that the scene is coming and then shoot when it’s there. It’s a difficult situation hitting a target while moving, but while you are trying you will get better and better at it.

What I had in my mind this particular evening was a lone tree, if anything else showed up, I would try that as well. To shoot one of these lonely trees I first of all had to find a hole in the highway fencing. I could see these coming up from time to time. Second I had to have the combination of a hole in the fence and a lone tree. I was lucky and got this shot, which pretty much was what I was after.

Step 7: Get close to the window to avoid reflections

You have to get the camera close to the window to avoid too many reflections in the window and you have to keep the window reasonable clean. Or at least shoot around splashed bugs on the wind screen. The closer you get the camera the less important the dirt is.

Step 8: Don’t drive the car

Let somebody else drive the car. It is way to dangerous and illegal to take photos while driving yourself.

Another example

This is from New Zealand on our way to Lake Tekapo.

On The Road Again

Nikon D600, Nikkor 28-300mm, ISO 100, 35mm, f/3.8, 1/1000 sec


How to use advanced Dodging and Burning to improve your photo

At daytime Mont Saint Michel is crowded with tourists, but later, when the sun is down people leave the place. It's a labyrinth of small streets and alleys criss crossing their way to the entrance of the monastery on the top of the mountain. Small lamps light up and make it very Harry Potter medieval town. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

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Only recently I realized how powerful a tool and technique dodging and burning really is. I always thought of classic dodging and burning, but modern digital dodging and burning is much much more powerful and I have started to use it in some quite cool ways and I will show you how you can use this to improve the mood of your photo. I have written a tutorial on dodging and burning here.

In the article I have shown two different techniques used in the photo above, try and hover the mouse to see the changes I did with the Brush Adjustment tool::


And then hover to see what I did with the Radial Filter:


Notice how I have lit up the passage up the stairs and the platform at the far end of the passage and added light in the street. This makes the viewer curious and it seems welcoming and I achieved the warm and welcoming image I wanted.

Further examples and readings

Read the detailed tutorial on dodging and burning here.

I have been using Dodging and Burning many times and these are just two examples:

A Moeraki Boulder

Here I burned the shadow of the rock to emphasize it.

and in the next one I dodged the snow, to make it look like the light is shining from the viking ship.

Viking ship lit in the Winter

Do you want to make photos like these too?

All three of these images are made like HDR – which is an advanced photo technique, that you can learn too. If you want to make images like this, I can recommend to read my completely free and very detailed HDR tutorial and that you get your hand on a copy of Photomatix Pro. I can offer you 15% discount by using the coupon code “caughtinpixels”.

HDR of Mont Saint Michel from a distance at night

Mont Saint Michel, one of frances most important tourist attractions, with a history that spands for more than a 1000 years. It's a monastery built like a fortress in on an island. Due to the tide, it's some times an island and sometimes you can walk all the way to it, however you should only do it with a guide because of the danger of quicksand. Photo by Jacob Surland,

Mont Saint Michel, one of frances most important tourist attractions, with a history that spands more than a millinium. It’s a monastery built like a fortress on an island. Due to the tide, it’s sometimes an island and sometimes you can walk all the way to it, however you should only do it with a guide because of the danger of quicksand. It’s oozing of middle age and it’s so beautiful, however also very popular with the tourist. We arrived just around midday and we got almost lifted up and carried away by the crowd. We quickly bought a sandwich and found the wall and walk for a little while there and found a spot with fewer people. If you are planning to travel to Mont Saint Michel, do make sure that you are there in the evening as well. A lot of the people leave the small middle age town late in the afternoon and after dinner, you can get around much easier. You can also take a break from the people by walking around Mont Saint Michel, given that it is not high tide. The monastery itself is a master piece in architecture. The monastery gardens is so beautiful and the terrace in front of the church is so magnificent and the view… Wow! The Monastery is very popular and you will get to stand in line for some time.

How to take HDR shots at night

When you take night shots with stars above and some foreground you almost have to take two shots. One for the sky with the stars and one for the ground. In this case I have shot 7 bracketed shots with 1 EV step between each photo ranging from -3 to +3. It’s hard to shoot at night if you have really bright light sources as well as really dark areas. The dynamic range becomes enourmous. In this case there’s a strongly lit monastery with huge spotlights located on an island and surrounded by darkness. The spotlights real easy burn out.

To be sure to get everything I shoot 7 shots, which is only just enough.

How to photograph stars

Having solved how to capture all of the light, the next problem is to get a good shot of the stars. A thing that surprised me the first time I photographed stars, is that they actually move quite fast. As a consequence of that you have to have fairly fast shutter speeds to get round stars, otherwise this will become oblong or long trails. This can be an effect, but that was not what I wanted.

The longer focal length you are shooting your shot at, the more apparent the movement of the stars will be. If you use a really wide angle lens you can shoot exposures of shoot 15 seconds and get fairly round stars, I shot this at 70mm and at 13 seconds, and my stars are a bit too long for what I had hoped for. The 7th and lightest exposure is the shot aimed at getting my stars. In this shot Mont Saint Michel is burned out, but the sky well exposed. This is the EXIF data for the star shot:

Mont Saint Michel from a distance - Star shot

 Nikon D800, Nikkor 28-300mm, ISO 800, 70mm, f/5.0, 13 sec

As you can see the lights on the monastery is burned out, but the stars visible, but the stars are a bit long to what I had wished:

Mont Saint Michel from a distance - Oblong stars

100% crop

Unfortunately I didn’t realize the problem until later in my shootings and at that time I had changed the focal length to 28mm. The solution was to increase the ISO. Eventually I went to ISO 2000. I was working under pressure, because it was getting very late and my son was tired and the buses kept coming by with their headlights pointed straight into the lens, so I had to time my 7 shots. And on top of that, I wanted a few different compositions.

At my 28mm shots the stars are much more round, and this is even at 20 seconds, which is 7 seconds longer. This means that focal length is very strong factor when photographing stars. The light changed rapidly and it rapidly grew darker:

Mont Saint Michel from a distance - Star shot ISO 2000

100% crop

The comprise with a higher ISO is more noise and when you remove the noise, you also lose some stars, because the noise reduction software can’t tell the difference between noise and stars.

Shooting stars is difficult and there are some trade offs you have to make.

Processing stars and monastery

Photomatix (and any other HDR software) handles star lit skies badly for at least two reasons.

1) There is no dynamic light – the sky is almost completely black with a few dot’s on it. Photomatix will try to expand the dynamic range and the result is really noisy and not very good.

2) The stars move – more than you think. Not one of the 7 shots has got the stars in the same place and when merged you will get duplicated stars.

The solution to this is only to use one exposure for the sky, the lightest shot. and make an HDR for the rest of your image.

The stars I processed in Lightroom using these settings:

Mont Saint Michel from a distance - stars processing

Contrast and Clarity is what really makes the stars pop. Because of the huge spotlights, my processing also takes that into account. It’s a balance of great stars and spotlights.

The noise in the sky I handled in Noiseware, which I find Noiseware good at handling noise without deleting too many of the stars. I have bought the Noiseware plugin for Photoshop and handle the noise from Photoshop later in the process.

The only part of the HDR image I end up using is the monastery, it being the only real object in the scene apart from the stars. This is the output from Photomatix:

Mont Saint Michel from a distance - Tone mapped

This is a bit more colorful than my final result and a bit more flat and washed out. It looks too HDR for what I wanted. It needs to be a little more contrasty, some of the gray areas must become darker and even black. Dark areas are important to get a strong image.

What I did was blend some of the original -3 and -2 to exposures gently into this tone mapped version and finally arrive at this result:

Mont Saint Michel from a distance - finalNotice that some strong shadows have been introduced to replace washed out shadows and also the hyper green trees are more natural now.

Want to get started on HDR photography?

If you too want to get started on HDR photography and get make great HDR photos you can get a 15% discount on Photomatix by using the coupon code “caughtinpixels”. Get photomatix Pro.

And then read my thorough HDR tutorial and look at my images and learn a ton of different tips to improve your post-processing skills.



Sunset at Juno Beach more than 69 years after D-day

Sunset at Juno Beach. It's a very strong set of feelings that go through you, when you stand on the beaches on which the allied forces landed on the 6. of june 1944, also known as D-Day. Almost 60 years later you still find left overs from the war and from the 150.000 troops that landed on the beach that early morning. Almost 60 years later I got this peaceful photo from Juno beach, which is the beach where the Canadians landed. Imagening the number of dead people and the horrible events that took place on that day, is indeed very moving. This photo is taken at low tide and several hundred meters from the the coast line and only half way to the water. Photo by Jacob Surland,

Nikon D600, Nikkor 14-24mm, ISO 1600, 14mm, f/3.2, 1/50 sec

It’s a very strong set of feelings that go through you, when you stand on the beaches on which the allied forces landed on the 6. of june 1944, also known as D-Day. Almost 70 years later you still find left overs from the war and from the 150.000 troops that landed on the beach that early morning. Almost 70 years later I got this peaceful photo from Juno beach, which is the beach where the Canadians landed. Imagening the number of dead people and the horrible events that took place on that day, is indeed very moving. This photo is taken at low tide and several hundred meters from the the coast line and only half way to the water.

About the shooting

I shot this photo as an bracketed shot. I shot it hand held at ISO 1600 on my Nikon D600. I wasn’t prepared for shooting any photos this evening and had not brought the tripod. However I managed to get some decent shots hand held and by working with the noise reduction, I get a decent result. Not the same quality, as if I had used a tripod.

I have found out, that when I shoot single exposures using both the Nikon D600 and Nikon D800 I need to set the exposure compensation to -2/3 EV step. This will in most cases give me an image that is slightly under exposed but with no burned out areas.

This was the setting my camera had when I went to the beach, and when I activated bracketed -2, 0 and +2, it will also get adjusted by the -2/3 of an exposure step. This gives odd exposures -2 2/3, -2/3 and +1 1/3

This photo I used for this one ended up being the +1 1/3 exposure. It is very bright, but has got almost no burned out high lights. If you look at the histogram you can see the information is spread all across, and all of the histogram to the right is used. For some reason you can keep more information in the right hand side of the histogram, than in the left hand (and dark side), so if you exposure to use the right hand side, you get more information in your photo and in this case less noise. This is called Expose To The Right (ETTR). In this case I can use the overexposed with a good result.

Juno beach - histogram


To get the look and feel I adjusted the White Balance to Daylight, even though it was not day light. That gives the warm bluish purple mood of the clouds. And then I changed the exposure compensation in Lightroom to -2 – which brought me to -2/3, which I normally shoot in.

I then exported to Photoshop to do straightening up and noise reduction. I used Noiseware for noise reduction.

I used a lot of time removing footsteps in the sand. Optimal there would have been no foot steps, but people were walking all around. There was no way to get the shot without any foot steps.


Disneyland Paris – The Space Mountain

Disneyland Paris - The Space MountainThis is one of the very first HDR shots I shot. It is shot hand held with my old Canon 400D and the old 18-55mm kit lens. I think this photo is a proof that it doesn't take professional gear to make great photos. I shot three exposure bracketed shots (-2, 0 and +2) and merged them in Photomatix Pro.

This is one of my very first HDR shots I shot. It is shot hand held with my old Canon 400D and the old 18-55mm kit lens. I think this photo is a proof that it doesn’t take professional gear to make great photos. I shot three exposure bracketed shots (-2, 0 and +2). I shot it in june 2012, before I really knew anything about HDR or post processing.

What’s most interesting about the post-processing is the mirroring of the lower part of the image. There was a large container like construction I couldn’t avoid having in the photo. I tried another angle, but that didn’t work, so in the end I shot with the construction included.

I have did the tone mapping and really liked the result, but I didn’t like the construction, so the photo has been lying around for some time, and then recently I picked up the photo again, and tried to remove the construction.

This is the original:

Space Mountain - before

#1 This the top of the ugly construction and it ruins the photo.

#2 This part of the image I mirrored and merged into the right hand side. The photo is close to 100% symmetric, but I had to do a little shuffling around the pixels to get it to look well enough to deceive the eye. There are probably many ways to do this, but the way I did it, was to load the image into Photoshop, and then duplicate the layer (CTRL+J) and then select the lower layer and press CTRL+A to select all of the layer. And then I flipped the layer like this:

Space Mountain - step 1 flip

And then I used a Layer Mask to paint through. What a Layer mask does, is punch a hole through the layer it is attached to, but only where you paint black on the layer mask. This is the procedure to add a layer mask and paint through to the layer underneath:

Space Mountain - step 2 paint through

And notice how the layer mask is painted black in one corner, making the layer below visible:

Space Mountain - step 3 paint through