Eye of the eclipse...

by darkhausen

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These are probably one the best shots I ever saw using the entry level Nikon D40 (which is the only DLSR I have). While my skills are far from pro, I think these photos are quite too good to be true for a D40.


Do you think these are raw shots or have been edited? Note, nothing wrong with editing just want to know if these are achievable from a D40 without any post processing .

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All heavily post processed (or more :-) ). Closest to out of camera is probably 500px.com/photo/879924 – Russell McMahon Aug 27 '12 at 0:11
This might be more useful if it was asked "are images like this possible straight out of a D40?" At least then searching for this thread may help someone in the future. – dpollitt Aug 27 '12 at 3:24
The one Russell identifies as closest to out of camera clearly has a "vintage effect" tone curve, which I don't think was common in D40-era DSLRs (oh, the irony). – mattdm Aug 27 '12 at 12:49
The first two are definitely heavily processed, didn't check the rest. Look at the shadow under the model's chin on the first photo. To get that there would have to be a really strong light from that side, to simultaneously have the sun in the shot would need a serious lighting rig which manages to light just the model but not the beach itself... It's much more likely to be composited from a couple of shots adn then photoshopped together. Attempting to pass this off as a 'straight out of the camera' shot is a pretty big whopper – user9817 Aug 28 '12 at 8:10
Most of the links here are dead now. :( – mattdm Dec 31 '14 at 15:44

3 Answers 3

Right... this question and its answers has been bothering me for a long, long time.

It's actually more likely that the first linked shot ("Mallory", back-3/4-lit by a setting sun on the beach) was done in-camera with a D40 (or one of its 6 megapixel Nikon stablemates, the D100, D70 or D50) than with another DSLR. And you don't need anything special, lighting-wise, to do it either; a single manual off-camera speedlight, even a modestly-powered one, will do the trick. If the commenters don't believe it, it's either because they've never tried it with their own D40/D50/D70/D100, or because they're assuming that the limitations of their own camera's flash system also apply to the D40. And at a focal length of 18mm and an aperture of f/5.6, there's no reason at all to think that this wasn't done with a kit lens (Nikon's pre-VR wasn't half bad at all when closed down a touch, and the barrel distortion will not be too apparent with the horizon centred).

The secret is that the D40 (along with the D50, D70 and D100) uses a hybrid mechanical/electronic shutter. There is a focal plane shutter, but it's slow (even on the fastest of these cameras, it never goes above 1/250 of a second). Faster shutter speeds use a global electronic shutter on the sensor, which means that you don't have to worry about when the second shutter curtain starts to close. (If we're all very good, maybe Santa will one day bring a system like this back and put it on all digital cameras. There is no good reason why we should still be worrying about shutter curtain travel and sync speeds on digital cameras in this day and age.)

Getting a reasonable flash exposure, even with a large umbrella or a softbox, with a speedlight at f/5.6 and ISO 200 (the D40's minimum) is no big deal. Anybody who owns a speedlight and isn't suffering from a severe bokeh addiction has probably done it at least once. At the distance likely for this shot, it's probably 1/4 power or less on most manual speedlights. Forget about this being outdoors and the ambient light and all of that, it's just the basic flash exposure on the subject that we're concerned with here, and that's not even close to difficult to do with inexpensive equipment.

Getting an into-the-sun shot of the beach at that time of day at f/5.6 is no big deal either. Sure, the sun will be blown out completely, and the sky and reflections on the water will be pretty well washed out (if you're going for the sun-drenched look rather than something sunset-y). All you need is a high-enough shutter speed, and 1/640 of a second will do quite nicely at that time of the day. Of course, your model will be a black silhouette on the shadow side, but that's the price you pay for shooting into the sun, isn't it?

With a typical focal plane shutter, you would need to either shoot at or below your camera's X-sync speed (somewhere between 1/160 and 1/250), or rely on high speed sync. With high speed sync, you lose a lot of effective flash power, and may need multiple flashes to do the job. With lower shutter speeds, you would need to use a neutral density filter (or a very small aperture) to bring the ambient exposure down, and then use much higher flash power to compensate for the ND filter. Thus Clara Onager's comment that you'd need serious light to do the job.

An electronic shutter (or a leaf shutter) means that you don't need to choose between a good flash exposure at f/5.6 and a good beach exposure at f/5.6 using a naked lens. Provided that you're not using an iTTL-compatible connection (which Nikon artificially limits to 1/500 on these cameras), you can sync at any speed—with the caveat that your shutter speed is at least as long as your flash duration, so full power is unlikely to be available at speeds over 1/1000, and that whatever you are using for a trigger (sync cord or wireless trigger—it has to be something that works from the hot shoe or PC terminal) can work at your shutter speed. (Some radio trigger systems have enough delay that you can't use them at higher shutter speeds.) As long as you're getting the full output of the flash, shutter speed doesn't matter; and if shutter speed doesn't matter, you're free to set it high enough to control the ambient exposure. And because you don't need to battle the ambient to get the flash (shadow) exposure right, the flash will add very little to anything that isn't in shadow (and if you look closely, there is a pool of lighter sand—about a third to a half stop up—around the model and some shadowing visible on the directly sunlit sand to the right of her left leg).

There's no need to composite the shot, and no whoppers need be told. (Like any photograph, it will look better if it's well-edited, but it wouldn't require any Photoshop heroics to get to this point. And one could, I suppose, resort to the admittedly radical solutions we used in the film era, like worrying about getting the makeup and hair, etc., right before pressing the shutter button. There was no healing brush or clone stamp tool on transparency film.)

So what we have here is a shot that would be easy to do with a $40K Hasselblad and $10K worth of Broncolor strobes and accessories... or with a D40, a Yongnuo YN460 speedlight, a no-name stand (or a voice-activated stand with a name, like "Ralph" or "Susan"), a sync cord and a brolly.¹ The fact that it would be harder and more expensive to do with a D810 and SB910s or a 5DIII and 600EX-RTs doesn't play into it at all.

If you were to see these pictures printed at 16" x 20" or so (or saw the 6MP images at 1:1 on your screen) the serious shortcomings of the D40's sensor would show through—but it's the same sensor with the same shortcomings as that used in the "enthusiast" D70 and the "pro" D100. For smaller prints, canvas, billboards or display cards meant for more distant viewing, or for the web, it was good enough to let a lot of seriously good photographers make a seriously good living.

Yes, there are a couple of shots that are necessarily composites (or involved breaking the law or an enormous budget for the shoot, one that would make the D40 a very strange choice of weapon). But there are some that could easily be straight out of camera with the right pre-production (casting, hair and makeup, etc.).

¹ I have no idea what equipment other than the D40 was actually used for the shot. It could have been expensive lighting and grip gear, for all I know. But you don't need more than an adjustable speedlight, a way to trigger it at your selected shutter speed, and maybe some way to hold and soften it.

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I think you're basically right, but many of these images have (or, had — sadly, most of the links are dead now so they're hard to reference) color profiles that seem unlikely to have been out-of-camera JPEG options (although I'd believe it from a newer entry level camera, since most now do have such options). So I guess part of this comes down to whether adjusting that curve in a RAW processor without any local modifications or anything "counts" or not. – mattdm Dec 31 '14 at 15:49

There is serious post-processing done as @ahockley said.

What you seem to imply and I think should be addressed is that the Nikon D40 is not capable of producing outstanding images. Despite being entry-level, a D40, as all similar DSLRs, can produce almost any image which is possible by a high-end model when viewed up to a certain resolution (if the image fits on-screen, your are definitely below this limit).

Higher-end models have features which make them more desirable for professionals such as a 100% viewfinder, weather-sealed body, dual-control dials and higher frame-rates. If you think about these carefully, it is easy to figure out that none of these actually affect the quality of images. They certainly let you work faster, in adverse conditions and even spare you some spurious cropping but nothing to do with image output. It does not matter if you got the shot while shooting a 3 FPS instead of 12 FPS or using one dial instead of two for the outcome!

What has an impact on image quality far more than the camera is the lens and the D40 can work with all top-of-the-line Nikkor lenses. On some it cannot autofocus but this is not necessary to get a quality shot anyway.

All this to say that with only a minority of exceptional circumstances (extremely high-ISO, super-fast speeds, terribly adverse weather), if a photo is impossible to make using a D40, it is impossible on a DSLR at any price.

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These are definitely edited. The first one you note looks like it's had heavy retouching done on the model's skin, and the third one is definitely a composite of two images.

That said, the fact they're edited has nothing to do with the camera... for these style of images they'd be edited and post-processed even if you had a $8000 camera body.

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Don't forget the professionally applied lightning. – Berzemus Aug 27 '12 at 8:15

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