Sunday, 31 May 2020

Location Scouting for Astrophotography

A couple of weeks ago, one of my photography pals texted me asking me if I wanted to join him on a Milky Way hunt some time since his summer plans had been scratched due to Corona (Matthias, you really need to set up a website so I can link to your photos!). He mentioned a couple of possible locations, which got me thinking; where would _I_ shoot the Milky Way from. I came up with an idea (that I won't share here yet, I haven't seen any other astro shots from here and I'd like to have a crack at it before someone else gets in first, so if you recognise any of the spots in this post, plesase keep them to yourself for now - hopefully in a month or so we'll be able to pull this off). I knew that I wanted to include some 'civilisation glow' in the shot if possible - the night glow from a human habitation and I opened up Google Earth to look for a possible mountainside that would give me the angle that I wanted.

Watching the Sun Go Down || Olympus f/16, 1/60, ISO 1250

It's not as easy as I'd thought to find a deforested slope facing the right direction in the lower alps. Despite my local knowledge, it took quite a bit of playing around before I found a peak that would work, and even then it was only on paper. At the end of May I headed down there for an evening to catch the sunset and the blue hour to see whether the angles matched up. Even a couple of days beforehand I wasn't too sure about the trip, no-one wanted to join me and I was a little wary of being on my own in the mountains at night - even in familiar territory there are plenty of things that can go wrong. And the forecast wasn't playing ball. Until Friday morning that is. All of a sudden the evening forecast was opening up - a green light.

It's a Sign! || Olympus f/8, 1/80 s, ISO 200

With sunset projected to be 21.05, I set off from home just after 18.00 to allow myself enough time to get down there, get up onto the ridge and find a couple of spots whilst the light was still good. Climbing up from the car park the light was gorgeous. A few high clouds might have been nice to complete the scene, but I wasn't going to complain. The few people still on the hills but coming down gave me some strange looks and I had a quick chat with one bloke who was interested to know what I was doing going up at that time of day before he got pulled to heal by his wife. And then I was on the ridge.

At the Ridge || Olympus f/8, 1/500 s, ISO 200

The views were beautiful, clear air with some mountain cloud hanging around the peaks. It was all I had hoped for from my virtual tour planning and more. There is some lovely rock around, and the peaks still have significant patches of snow on them despite the non-winter of 2019/20. From the ridge its a broad path leading to one of the peaks that had looked promising and so after taking a couple of smartphone shots I headed out, warm setting sun on my left, valley on my right. The light was catching the fir trees along the ridge, especially the skeletal branches of dead trees that had long since lost their bark to the elements. The orange light picked out the highlights nicely.

Catching the Last Rays || Olympus f/8, 1/80 s, ISO 250

Just before the potential spot that I'd looked out there's a broad shoulder that looked promising, the spot itself had a lot more trees and was a lot narrower than it had looked on the computer, pretty much ruling it out. By this time, the sky was beginning to turn orange in the west and I was desperate to find an open piece of hillside facing westwards. East wasn't a problem, I could get to a treeless spot there any time, but the other side was light forest. In the end I had to settle for a gap between the trees. I say settle, I think the silhouettes work quite nicely, but it wasn't the picture I had first envisioned. Dropping the aperture to f/16 helped with the sunburst.

And Down She Goes || Olympus f/16, 1/100 s, ISO 200

In the immediate aftermath of the sunset I headed back along the ridge to where I had first hit it to wait for the first stars. The path back offered a couple of nice shots too, and I particularly like this one with the roots on the path. This is a composite of two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the background. After mixed experience with ON1 Photo Raw's HDR assembling, I've gone over to using layers to assemble these shots, it gives me a deal more flexibility when I can control precisely which elements of the photo I use from each exposure. I'll write a separate blog entry on this some time.


The Path Goes On || Olympus f/6.3, 1/50 s, ISO 1600


Up until this point I'd had my go-to lens on the camera, the Zuiko f4 12-100 mm, getting back to the top of the ridge it was time to get the wide-angle zoom out, the Leica f2.8 8-18 mm. The wider aperture and wider field of view make this a great astro-landscape lens, although I wouldn't complain if there was a convenient lens with an even wider aperture for night shots. The optical quality is second to none though, provided I can focus it properly. During the daytime this isn't an issue, I just leave it on autofocus normally, but focusing on pin-pricks of light at night to get the infinity focus right is tricky, even with glasses.

Golden to Blue || Olympus f/4, 1/60 s, ISO 500

I set up the tripod with my Benro Geared Head to allow me good control over the level and direction and started shooting the blue hour. When hiking, I rarely wear more than t-shirt and shorts, but even setting out from the car I was wearing long sleeves and trousers. Despite my soft-shell jacket it was beginning to get quite cool in the late evening breeze. Wooly hat and gloves time, though putting the gloves on and off was a pain. I was glad of the tripod net that I'd bought for the occasion to store bits of camera in the low light, it made keeping kit under control in the dark a lot easier. 

Waiting for the Stars || Olympus f/2.8, 1/6 s, ISO 200

And so I sat and waited for the first stars to appear, the half-moon high in the sky away to my right, the dew beginning to fall. Taking a shot every five minutes or so, exposure bracketing just to be on the safe side. I was watching the clock too, I didn't want to be out too late on my own - there was still a trek down to the car in the dark. Even with the half-moon and my head-torch, stumbling around in the dark in the mountains shouldn't be taken lightly. And then there was the 90 min drive home.

Gibbous Moon over the Allgäu || Olympus f/3.3, 10 sec, ISO 200

The descent proved easier than I had feared and I was soon back on the tarmac. Definitely worth the evening's trek. Oh, and remember the SD card that went through the washing machine? It seems to have finally given up the ghost. Fortunately after I transferred the photos to the PC and not before. Sometimes you've gotta have a bit of luck!

End of the Day || Olympus f/4, 0.8 s, ISO 800




Sunday, 24 May 2020

When What You See Is Not What You Get

or 'How to Suck Less at Photography'

 

So often I'll get back from a day's shoot and I'm disappointed by a greater or lesser portion of my photos. Things that looked great in the field simply look bleurgh on my computer screen and I'm not always sure why. A mountain vista, a forest scene, a great skyline all looked really impressive in real life, but for one reason or another the picture fails to live up to the reality. There are as many strategies for improving the quality of our images as there are photographers, and believe me, I've listened to a lot of them. In the field I've tried to concentrate on the conventional rules of composition, but sometimes something still just isn't right. With experience I've started recognising more and more frequently what will and what won't work - a photographer's spidey-sense. I've come to realise that part of the problem lies in the differences between what we perceive in the field and what the camera sees.


Sometimes It Does All Come Together


Of course there are technical mistakes we can make in the field too that result in images being sent straight to the recycle bin; too slow shutter speed resulting in motion blur, missed focus, over- and under-exposure, but those are rookie mistakes we don't make any more, aren't they? (I wish!)


Three Differences Between your Eyes and your Camera

There are (at least) three significant differences between our eyes and even the best camera that negatively affect the images we create. Knowing what they are can seriously improve our photography. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and if we know ahead of time what isn't going to work, we can either avoid those shots or we can try to compensate for our cameras' 'deficiencies'.



Vision or Gaze Focus

Let's start with focus. How broad is your vision focus? What do I mean? If we include our peripheral vision, most people can see approximately a 170° arc in front of us. Coming forward we pass from far- to mid- and near-peripheral vision before we reach centre gaze. There's a great little Wikipedia article about it. Not with me? Try this. Put your finger in the middle of a piece of text such as this page of writing. Focus on your finger and now try to read a word at the edge of the page without shifting your focus. Chances are, depending on the size of the font and the size of screen that you're reading this on, you'll only be able to read a couple of words either side of your finger before you have to start making educated guesses. 


Our focal range is extremely narrow and has to do with the concentration of light receptor cells in a narrow part of the retina in our eyes. It's actually extremely efficient to see like this - peripheral vision is our radar for detecting things of potential interest, but we don't need to be able to discern all the information in this part of our sight, especially when we're in a familiar environment. It would take up far too much of our attention. Instead, the ability to discern detail in a scene is limited to a few degrees directly in front of direction of gaze.


By way of contrast, our camera picks up all the information equally over the whole picture. There's no concentration of pixels at the centre of an image, we're presented with all of it at once. Of course, when we're looking at a photograph we can only focus on a narrow part of that image, but all the information is there.


Why is this important? Of all of the differences between our eyes and cameras, I think that this is the one that's most difficult to get our heads around. At least until we become aware of it, and even then it catches me out as often as not. Take this image of a mountain woodland scene taken on a recent excursion to the alps. Walking down the path I was struck by the glossy lime green beech tree left of centre. The photograph doesn't work though, there are too many details competing for your attention. It's one of those scenes that is almost impossible to capture well unless the conditions are on your side, but we'll look at that in a minute.


When Selective Focus Lets Us Down

3D

This is the obvious one. Stereoscopic vision affords us the ability to perceive our surroundings in three dimensions, particularly objects at close range. There are three mechanisms we use to estimate the distance of an object - stereoscopic vision, experience and motion. If we know how big an object is, we can estimate its distance depending on its size independent of stereoscopic vision, similarly, if we know the type of object we're looking at our brain is quite good at interpolating that object's speed to distance. Surprisingly, our 3D vision is only reliable to about 6 m (!). Nevertheless, the fact that we perceive in 3D is very different to the way a single lens camera depicts an image. We're afforded an instant snapshot of a scene. We can only discern the three dimensional context based on visual cues that we're familiar with.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is the difference in light intensity between the darkest and lightest parts of a scene. Photographers like to talk in terms of stops, a stop being a doubling or halving of the amount of light. A good camera can differentiate up to 14 stops of light at its native ISO (the standard ISO of the camera, not necessarily the lowest). That's a factor of 16,348 from the darkest point to the lightest point. Impressive, huh? Sure. Until you realise that the eye is able to distinguish 18-20 stops - up to a factor of just over a million. So the eye is 64x better at distinguishing between light and dark than your camera.

So How do we Overcome the Deficiencies of our Cameras?

To make good images, we have to compensate for these differences and bring the viewer's eye to the subject of the photo using some tricks. This is the art of composition, creating a strong image using the tools available to us. 

There are ways of overcoming our cameras' 'deficiencies' (actually I prefer to think about differences between eye and camera rather than deficiencies of the latter - our cameras are actually pretty advanced tools): In order to overcome issues associated with dynamic range, we can take multiple shots at different exposure settings and combine them either in camera or in post-production (high dynamic range or HDR images). There are numerous techniques for enhancing the 3D-feel of our images, for example by shooting low to the ground or using a wide angle lens. The aim of all these techniques is to lead the viewer's eye to the subject of our composition. There are also numerous composition tricks we can use to do this, structuring our photos using the rule of thirds or the golden rule, geometry, leading lines and the like. There's plenty of good content out there on how tame our cameras to compensate for these differences.

Vision focus isn't so easy though and requires that we think about our images slightly differently. One way of understanding how to bring the viewer's attention to the subject of our image is to think in terms of separation: How can I separate the subject of my photo from its environment in order to make it clear to the viewer that this is what the image is about? Of course, this pre-supposes that we know what the subject of our image is ourselves, which isn't always obvious, particularly when it isn't even a concrete object.

Achieving Separation

What do I mean by separation? It's the skill of highlighting the subject of your image in such a way that it's obvious to the viewer what the photo is about. This separation can be subtle or obvious, there are a number of tricks we can use. I want to mention five here. The list is not exhaustive and they can all be combined with one another for more or less effect. Sometimes using just one of them can lead to really strong images though.

Light

Light is the easiest of the five tools to use. The eye naturally falls on the brightest parts of an image. Spotlights pick out the members of a band at a concert to focus your attention on them rather than the mess of back stage. Parts of our image that are unintentionally bright distract the eyes and pull them away from what we want the viewer to look at. 

Of course, we can turn this on its head and use dark to highlight the subject of the image, but the default setting is that light attracts. By using light to emphasise the subject of our photograph, we're effectively shining the spotlight on it. Woodland can be very effective for this, such as this picture of wood sorrel. On a stormy day gaps in the clouds can yield similar effects, such as the photo of Cinque Torri in the Dolomites in my gallery.


Spotlight On Sorrel


Colour

After light, the next most obvious tool to draw your viewer's attention to the subject of your image is colour. Bold, saturated colours are more effective than muted, pastel colours (think of text highlighters!). Many photographers will talk to you about colour theory and complementary colours. All well and good, but instinctively I think we know which colours work together and which colours contrast (if we didn't it wouldn't work).


The red-purple marsh orchid really stands out here against the lush green spring grass of this Bavarian pastorale.

Outstanding in its Field

Depth of Field

Depth of field is the relative distance in front of and behind the focal plane of the camera that is effectively in focus. A narrow depth of field means that focus is restricted to a short distance around the focal plane, a wide depth of field puts more of the image into focus.

We can control it using the camera's aperture; an open aperture generally results in a narrow depth of field, a closed aperture in a broader depth of field. The closer the subject matter and the longer the focal length of the lens used, the narrower the depth of field too.

Like with light, the eye naturally wanders to what's in focus in an image, like the dandelion centre left here. The closer and further flowers are out of focus thanks to an aperture of f5.6. A similar effect can be achieved in mist or fog.


The Eye Flies to the Focal Point


Composition

I showed you an example of poor composition earlier; the beech tree against the woods. It was literally impossible to see the wood for the trees! If, though, you can put a bit of empty space between your subject and its environment - what photographers classically call separation - it's easier for the eye to find its intended target. It's a frame within a frame, like a bulls-eye saying 'look at me'.

Parting is such sweet sorrel - using the roots to frame the greenery

Texture

Texture is particularly powerful in monochrome photography, where it can really stand out in an image. It's probably the subtle changes in light that stick out and help the viewer to focus.

I didn't have a good example of this from the field so I took this quick and dirty photo of the rug in our living room. Rug, edging and tiles all have a very similar tones, but the texture of the three elements is clearly distinct, allowing the viewer to visually separate the elements.


Texture Separation



 

Separation using Light


 

Separation using Colour


 

Separation using Depth of Field


 

Separation using - Separation



Bringing it all Together

So how do we put all this into practice? When something catches your eye in the field, before you raise your camera to your eye, stop a second and analyse what's in front of you. What is that has caught your attention? Let your eye wander over the scene for a second or two so that you can identify the subject and ask yourself whether there's enough separation between the subject and the background that the viewer can identify what the subject is. If there isn't, how can you generate separation using some of the tools I've mentioned above?


If you've found this article useful, let me know below. Also, if you're in the Munich area and would be interested in exploring putting some of this into practice together in the field, drop me a line (contact details on the right) and we'll see if we can set something up!

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Waterfalls and Wildflowers - The Power of Separation

It won't come as a surprise to some of you to know that our medium-term plan is to up-roots here in Bavaria and settle in Austria. The intention is to semi-retire, earning a little bit on the side with photo safaris and workshops in the border area between Lienz and Cortina d'Ampezzo, between the main chain of the Alps and the majestic Dolomites. I've been working on my photography a lot over the last 18 months. I've come a long way in that time. I still have a way to go, but if I review my photos of the last few years, I can see definite progress. The Mike of 18 months ago would have a lot to learn from the Mike of now. I know that I've still got a ways to go, but in the near future I hope to start offering tuition on a 1:1 or 1:2 basis. The tuition can be in English or German, though preferably not both in the same session.

After the Rain || Olympus f4.5, 1/160 s, ISO 200

This won't be on a monetary basis, which doesn't mean the tuition will be free. Instead of remuneration, I will be asking for detailed feedback from you in order that I can hone my skills as an instructor. So, if you're in the Munich area and find yourself looking at my photos and saying "Wow, I wish I could take photos like that!", get in touch and we'll see what we can work out.

It would be useful for me to understand a bit about your current level of expertise as well as your aspirations before we start out so that I don't end up boring you with stuff you already know and so that I can plan the excursion to give you a chance of learning what you want to learn.

Dewy Needles || Olympus f6.3, 1/200, ISO 1600

Unless you have a specific plan in mind, my recommendation would be that we head down to the mountains to somewhere like Hinterstein here and simply head up the trail. Tuition would involve a whole day spent in the wilds, so you'll need to be at least a little bit fit, though we will be stopping regularly for photos. Rather than classroom tuition, it will all be out in the field (or forest😉) showing you optimal camera settings as we go for the compositions as we find them. We'll discuss what makes good photos, what constitutes good and bad lighting (and why bright sunlight isn't always the best), how to separate subject matter from its environment to draw the viewer's eye to where you want it and how to use lines in a photo to do the same.

Zipfelsbach Waterfall || Olympus f22, 1/2 s, ISO 125

One of the first compositions on this particular tour, for example, is the Zipflesbach waterfall, where we could play with how the exposure time affects the appearance of the water and how to convey a sense of motion through slow shutter speeds. A tripod is a must for such shots on most cameras, and a neutral density (ND) filter can be very helpful to prevent over-exposure. At the very least, a variable ND filter, with two layered polarising filters that can be twisted independently in order to adjust how much you decrease the amount of light hitting the lens. Professional photographers frown on them because they can cause unsightly patterns on plain subjects such as the sky, but they're great on waterfalls. There are several schools of thought - or preference - concerning the optimal exposure time for moving water, varying from about 1/5 s, enough to convey a sense of movement without overdoing it, to 2 s for that real silky motion. Personally, I like the effect that can be obtained with a 1/2 s exposure, though I have been known to go to as long as 10 s for some of my shots of the Stuiben Falls and Pöllat Gorge.

Alpine forests are a treasure-trove of wild flowers in early summer (and mushrooms in the autumn if it hasn't been too dry), and there would be plenty of time to get up close and personal with orchids, wolfsbane and the like. Early summer is also great for fresh pine growth, which traps dew-drops and rain-drops beautifully. 

Fresh Pine Growth || Olympus f11, 1/60 s, ISO 1600

Wolfsbane (German: Arnika) presents a great object lesson on how to photograph flowers with a little bit of imagination. There's a temptation to simply shoot flowers from head height - in my opinion, one of the worst perspectives to shoot from. It can work if done well, but it rarely has real impact. Get down low for a more oblique angle. In steep woodland it's relatively easy to get this sort of angle without breaking your back, it's common that plants are at waist height on the uphill side. 

 
Top Down || Olympus f4, 1/400 ISO 200
 
Classical Aspect || Olympus f4, 1/200, ISO 200

Here I took the spontaneous decision to take the unusual side-on shot. Depth of field is always a consideration for shots like these, you want it to be shallow enough to isolate the flower from the background without making the focal plane so narrow that virtually nothing is in focus. I got away with f4 here, though in retrospect I should have gone for a smaller aperture to get more of the flower head in focus. I'm still learning too.

Wolfsbane, Side On || Olympus f4, 1/250, ISO 200

Above the tree-line there are more wild flowers to be had and maybe even some bona fide landscapes. We were stunned by the number of wild gentians growing as we left the forest, together with marsh marigolds (a challenge for any camera due to the intensity of the yellow) and oxslips. Focus isn't the only way to get separation on subject matter, here I used light. With the sun shining on the pale yellow flowers it wasn't difficult to set the exposure so that they were well lit whilst the shadowy stream behind them was almost completely black. 

 
Oxslip || Olympus f5,6, 1/250 s, ISO 200


Electric-blue Gentians || Olympus f11, 1/80 s, ISO 640
 

The Zipfelsbach Alm has a small alpinarium with a lovely variety of mountain flowers including perennial cornflowers amongst others.

Perennial Cornflower || Olympus f13, 1/125, ISO 1600


The path back down from the Alm follows the Zipfelsbach over a series of small falls before the trail drops back into the forest and then down along the side of the high waterfalls. There are multiple opportunities to stop and shoot the upper falls on the way down.

Zipfelsbach || Olympus f22, 1/2 s, ISO 80


Interested? Drop me an email via the About Me at the bottom of the column to the right. Think I'm overstepping the mark and offering my services too soon? Let me know in the comments below.

Down the throat of a giant yellow gentian || Olympus, f13, 1/80 s, ISO 1600

Getting up-close and personal with a Burgundy Snail || Olympus f16, 1/60 s, ISO 1600

Trumpet Gentians || Olympus f13, 1/200 s, ISO 1600


QUICK SUMMARY
Best Conditions Early summer for the wild flowers, best early in the morning to avoid the crowds and catch the dew
Challenges Steep trek up to the Zipfelsalpe
Parking €4 at Parkplatz "Festhalle" just behind the church
Where to Stop Zipfelsalpe from June to October
Links Zipfelsalpe (German)

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Power of the Cube

I've not done a tech review before, but there's a first time for everything. A couple of weeks ago I found a YouTube review of a neat looking external light source cleverly called the Lume Cube. I forget who's video I saw first - like any good photographer with a mild case of GAS*, before buying I binge-watched a whole load of video reviews, but the first one I saw was probably Hudson Henry's - you can check it here if you're interested. What the reviews had to say was all very interesting, and I could immediately see the potential of this device in a number of settings, particularly as an additional light source in low-light settings for mixed-light photography, using the cube as a fixed (or even mobile) fill-in light.
*Gear Acquisition Syndrome - the tendency of (not just) photographers to acquire unnecessary gear in the often mistaken belief that it will improve your images without actually investing time or effort in your talents.

Lilly of the Valley || Olympus f5.6, 1/200, ISO 200

There are three versions of the cube, the first version was a solid 4.5 x 4.5 cm cube with a screw-cap Micro USB charge port, the second - Lume Cube Air - is a lighter version intended, as I understand it, for the drone market, and the third returned to the initial format with improved battery duration, light quality and spread as well as 'controllability'. All of them have a standard 3/8" tripod attachment thread and so can be mounted in a number of different ways.

All of them can be controlled using buttons on the device itself or using a dedicated smartphone App, allowing basic on/off controls, a light intensity bar allowing you to set the luminosity any where from 1-100%, strobe control and optical slave mode if you want to couple it with a separate flash device.

Having looked at all the reviews, particularly with an eye on battery life and light quality, I decided I'd go for version 2 and get a few of the useful-looking accessories while I was at it. In Europe the Cubes aren't all that easy to come by and not every camera shop stocks them. Amazon couldn't deliver the Portable Lighting Kit I was after so I Googled around and found it in a German online camera store and ordered one. Or thought I did. When it arrived I was dismayed to realise that I'd mistakenly ordered an original cube. Rather than send it back, I thought I'd give it a run for its money and see how I got on with it. The original Cube does actually have one advantage over the newer model; the charge point has a screw-cap rather than a rubber cover and is rated to 30 m underwater rather than the 10 m of version 2. If I want to, I can take the cube underwater as a light source for shooting whilst diving. 

What's in the Box?

Like I said, there were a couple of things in the Lighting Kit that piqued my curiosity, it has a range of attachments and filters as well as a doodah for mounting it on the camera's flash hot-shoe. Some of gear is clearly intended for portrait photographers and videographers.

The Cube

Obviously the Cube itself is the star of the show. Shot here in ambient daylight at about 5% maximum brightness. You're never going to need more light with this thing, it's an absolute monster. In a good way of course.


Box Contents

As well as the cube itself, a mini user manual and a micro USB charging cable, the Portable Lighting Kit+ comes with a filter attachment adaptor, a dome diffuser - probably my most-used filter, strong and light flat diffusion filters, two hexagonal plates, red, green, blue and yellow gels, two Lee CTO filters, a barn door, a snoot, the (dumb) hot-shoe connector and a sturdy zip case (not shown).

How to Use It

I'm not going to go into the user manual here, but I want to discuss the potential of the Cube from a landscape photographer's point of view. As well as off-camera fill-in light for flowers and other small objects, the Cube provides plenty of light for illuminating the foreground of night- and astro-photographs or for illuminating people. One of the things I'm looking forward to trying is using it in water to illuminate a wet-scape.
Lighting up the Aquilegia

There's something attractive about off-camera light. Light straight from the camera (flash) is fairly boring, resulting in an essentially equal exposure over the whole image, whilst at the same time creating harsh shadows if anything is partially obscured. Light something from the side and you'll start getting landscape photographers interested. Most landscapers look forward to the golden hours - the time just after sunrise and just before sunset due to the gentle light from the side rather than above. With the Cube, I can take this a step further, illuminating from wherever I please within reason. Lighting from below, for example, yields some lovely results on bell flowers, making it look as if they're lit up from within. A while ago I was struck by some photos of mushrooms by a British photographer who goes by the Instagramm handle @fatmanskinnycamera and was interested to see whether I could recreate the feeling he generated with a mix of artificial and natural light. I set up my test lab in the back garden. Please excuse the greenfly, I only noticed them after I'd finished processing the images! Here's my comparison of native light, on-camera flash and Lume Cube illumination, with the Cube set to approximately 20% luminosity.

Native Light || Olympus f16, 8" ISO 200

On-Camera Flash || Olympus f16, 1/60 s, ISO 200


Lume Cube Underlit || Olympus f16, 6" ISO 200

I think the results speak for themselves, the native light image is ok, but there's little separation from the background (well, I was shooting at f16), and the sky is distracting. The on-camera flash causes harsh shadows on the flowers (look at the flower on the right) and completely darkens the sky. Yes, I know it's possible to reduce the intensity of the flash to better balance the light, but I'm not particularly keen on investing the time in this skill. The Lume Cube, however, casts a gentle ethereal light and gives me the flexibility of being able to place the light source wherever you want is fantastic.

So that's how it looks close-up, what if you need more light. Here's a quick-and-dirty grab of my garden yew tree with and without the Cube, which was on the floor below the tripod.

 
 

Don't forget that there's an acute danger of under-exposing photos at dusk and at night due to the brightness of the camera screen; to ensure good exposure, I strongly recommend you rely on your camera histogram, assuming you have one. 

What I Do and Don't Like

There really is so much to like about this cute little cube:
Ease of use The constant source makes setting up photos practically idiot-proof. There's no need to muck about with flash, no trial and error. It's pretty much WYSIWYG and it's easy to move the light around and change direction and beam whilst monitoring the effect in real time through the camera. 
Light Quality Although one of the complaints against V1 was the light quality, I think this comes from portrait photographers who were concerned about light on skin. By light quality I mean that they reported it giving a slightly off-white colour cast. I certainly had no complaints illuminating flowers at dusk in the garden. 
Control The amount of light is also easily controlled in 1% increments via the dedicated Lume-X app, even if I did keep losing the connection. For shorter periods this was simply a question of clicking a button in the app.
Attachment It's easy to attach the Cube to any number of supports using the 3/8" thread, whether the hot-shoe connector or an Arca Swiss plate for tripod mounting. Mostly I use it on my old Ultra-pod II tabletop tripod using the supplied hot-shoe connector. This gives me infinite directional control. If I don't use the connector, the Ultra-pod screw tends to push off the filter-holder.
Filters The fact that the filters attach to the filter holder magnetically is brilliant, though I'm not sure I'd trust this 100% underwater. I think I'd be afraid of loosing the filter holder by catching on something.
Portability Lastly, the Cube is incredibly portable. At 100 g, and approximately 20 ml volume, no-one is going to notice it at the bottom of a rucksack or camera bag.

 
Lilac by Moonlight
 
Lilly of the Valley
 
Aquilegia Lit by Snoot
 
Dandelion Head


There are a couple of things I don't like with my version 1 cube that have apparently been overcome with version 2:
Battery The battery seems to run down very quickly, though not faster than indicated by the manufacturer. I tried a continuous test at 100% luminosity to see whether it would last the full 30 min, but the device quickly became so hot that it shut down. At 50% luminosity I only got 40 min continuous running before running the battery down - disappointing considering the blurb says it should be good for 2 h at this level.
Connection Another bugbear is that I frequently lose contact with the app and have to re-initiate the connection on the cube end.
Light Quality Lastly, the light quality feels quite harsh for what I want to do with the Cube, but the diffusers easily compensate for this. 

Bottom Line Despite these shortcomings, all-in-all I really like what I can do with the Cube, even if I wish I'd got V2 to start with. If I find myself using it a lot, I might grab myself a basic Cube V2 for underway.

Aquilegia Aglow || Olympus f16, 13", ISO 200