Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fall is in the air!

Yes, folks, the leaves are starting to turn. As I write this, colours are at about 10% around here (in the Minden/Haliburton area) but I just read that Algonquin Park is around 40-49%, the dominant colour is Yellow/Orange and they're even reporting some leaf falls already. Check out the Ontario Parks Fall Colours Report for more information.

Last week I commented on a Bridge technique if you have multiple monitors. I took a picture of the monitors so you could see what I meant. The large monitor on the left is a synchronized window with everything minimized except the preview frame. So I can navigate on the laptop screen and see the detailed images on the other monitor with no sweat. Here's the picture:

Now some notes about missed shots... I can't show you the pictures, I missed them!

Open your Eyes
I stopped enroute up North the other day, for some pictures of a causeway running along the water's edge. I've often meant to stop there but never did before. Too bad, because I've seen boats navigating the waterway and the juxtaposition of a boat and a car would be interesting.

Anyway, I took some pictures from different vantage points, and shot a couple of pictures from the roadway, including this not-very-interesting shot of some flowers.

Now take a closer look at the top of the hydro pole in the photo. Yes, a large hawk or eagle's nest. I flat out didn't see it. And I was standing about 30' away from it a few minutes later, and never looked up. Open your eyes! (Fortunately, I know exactly where this is. I'll be baaaaak...)

Don't leave home without it!
I was in Toronto, enroute to dinner with my folks, and had left the camera at home. I had an excuse: I was driving a loaner car while mine was in the shop and didn't want to leave the camera with my car so I left it at home. I missed the greatest picture: there's an old graveyard at Bathurst and King Road, and there was some construction so cars and trucks were creating a dust cloud. The setting sun lit the dust in the air so you can imagine the sunbeam effect behind an old graveyard... I missed it.

Up North, I always take the camera. Often, I'll mount the 200mm lens and leave it on the seat beside me in case I have a chance at some wildlife. I had a deer sighting a couple of months ago on the way to my cousin's place in Haliburton, and all I had to shoot with was my Blackberry. Take your camera. You never know...

Speaking of my cousin...
I had an enjoyable dinner and evening at his place in Haliburton this weekend. After dinner, the guitars came out, accompanying his daughter Lindsay (who will be married in a couple of weeks!), who has an awesome singing voice. Another cousin, from the other side of the family, though, is a professional musician: he's a bassist and also a composer and arranger and has some impressive shows under his belt. Anyway, he didn't have an instrument with him... or did he? Yes indeed. An i-Phone. Which he plugged into some speakers. First he played it as a piano keyboard, then he switched to a bass. Fantastic! Here's a shot of them doing their thing, with a couple of insets so you can see Lindsay and the i-Phone.

Steve is in the middle, and Ari, the groom-to-be is on the right. Lighting is with the Gary Fong Diffuser on the flash, f/8 @ 1/60, ISO 400 to capture some of the warm tungsten light from the lamp. But the warmth in that house was not from the fireplace that night, it was the people and the music and... it was a great evening.

Since I can't sing (my voice problems are still plaguing me. So much for my professional singing career), I took pictures. I captured this image of Steve, which I really like:

Interesting, for you Photoshoppers, how I created that. I close-cut Steve out of another image (similar to the one above but zoomed in a bit). Then I opened a shot that I took the next morning, by deliberately moving the camera sideways while the shutter was open, shooting some early fall foliage in the sunlight. I imported Steve on a new layer, then used a graduated screen from black to transparent on the layer mask. I touched up the mask further by erasing it to white over his face. I painted, again on the mask, with a small chalk textured brush around the edges of his hair to blend it in.

One more image to leave you with: I was in "Richard Martin move the camera while the shutter is open" mode. This shot was made by rotating the camera while the shutter was open. Just trying to give you some ideas!

"Tunnel Vision"


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Leah Elsa Torres Springer

Born September 15, 2009 at 11:59pm in New York.
Proud parents: Jamie and Maria Torres Springer
Proud grandfather: me!

Quick sketch done from the really terrible no-flash cellphone photo Jamie took moments after her birth.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Some camera and monitor tips

Today's Blog is about fixing a camera/lens problem, and about a tip for making life easier for you multiple monitor types.

Micro-adjusting your focus

For the past little while, I’ve been dissatisfied with the sharpness of some of my images, especially with the wonderful, professional, Nikkor AF-S VR 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. You would think that with this almost-$2000 lens, this would be the last issue you would expect. I’ve had the uneasy feeling that something is wrong.

I experimented. The autofocus, or even manual focusing was off. The image would look sharp through the viewfinder, but not on the finished image. Somehow, the big Nikon zoom and my D-300 were not getting along. My guess is that normal wear and tear changes the alignment of the lens in the mount. I never dropped or banged the lens or camera, so there was no abuse. I figured it was inevitable that I'd have to send my equipment in to Nikon for adjustment. Not under warranty, either — I bought the lens from B&H in New York.

My first clue of a solution was when I read a review of a piece of software called “LensAlign Pro” in the latest issue of Photoshop User magazine.

This is a software package that comes with some focusing targets and a ruler. In the article, and on their website, http://www.lensalign.com/, they mentioned that some of the current higher end DSLR’s have a menu-driven micro adjust of AF-tuning built in. Sure enough, the D300 has it. So do a lot of other DSLR’s — here’s a list that I found through that site:
  • Canon
    • 1DsMkIII
    • 1DMkIII
    • 5DMkII
    • 7D
    • 50D
  • Nikon
    • D3x
    • D3
    • D300
    • D300s
    • D700
  • Sony
    • A900
    • A850
  • Olympus
    • E-30
    • E-620
  • Pentax
    • K20D
    • K7D

If your camera does not have this feature, it may have to go back to the manufacturer for adjustment, which I know is time consuming and expensive. You would have to ship the body and any lenses that need alignment to them.

Now with all due respect to the makers of this “LensAlign” product, I’m not sure why you actually need it. Here’s what I did without spending dime one.

I took a tape measure and tied it to the tripod then let it run outward along the ground, straight away from the camera at about a 30° down angle. I focused on the red 7’ mark, took a shot and here’s what I got (click the image to blow it up):

Now I went into the menu and after about 10 trial-and-error adjustments (I ended up at +7 on a scale of -20 to +20, here’s the same shot. Enough said?

And it obviously worked: check this out!

This is cropped out of an image captured from about 8' to 10' away, at
200mm, f/2.8. If I hadn't cropped it, you would be able to see focus fall-off at
the edges of the leaf because it wasn't exactly at right angles to the focal
plane. In other words, the top of the leaf was further away, so it was out of
Oh by the way: September 13. Fall is imminent in Northern Ontario.

In the D300 (I don’t know about other cameras), the AF-tuning is specific to the lens. Change lenses, and set an adjustment for that lens. It knows which lens you have mounted and will microadjust automatically for that lens. Also the camera will save up to 99 different adjustments for each lens – so I’m guessing it might be different at minimum focus distance (like I used) or at other distances, so you might need more than one setting. I’ll experiment when I have time – but the most critical adjustment is when you’re focusing close and wide open. In this case, 7’ and f/2.8. But I get that when you shoot portraits, for instance, the near eye has to be tack sharp. The next lens I'm going to do is the 50mm f/1.8.

Dual Monitor Bridge Trick

Another trick I picked up in the same magazine is for Bridge users who have dual monitors. I clicked on Window --> New Synchronized Window, then dragged the new window to the big monitor. By dragging the boundaries of the file list, the thumbnails and the metadata, you’re left with one huge preview window. Now if you click on an image on the other monitor, it comes up full size on the big one. Even better (this wasn’t in the article): click on the big image then hit the spacebar. That puts a full-screen image on the big monitor and the scroll wheel on your mouse will let you zoom in up to 800%. Scroll through your images with the arrow keys. That’s how I selected the sharp leaf image.

Just before I go away, here are a couple of images I took from my dock a couple of evenings ago. This blue heron was fun to watch. Have you ever watched a cat hunting? Same thing: the bird spots a fish and moves into position in ultra slow motion and then strikes. I got him just as he caught a little minnow. Later I tossed a pebble to make him fly off so I could get a photo in flight.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Action Shooting tips

Today's Blog is about multitasking. Sorry about the title! You'll see where the "action" part fits into the topic in a minute.

I'm the worlds worst multitasker. Walking and chewing gum are mutually exclusive exercises. Ask Iris, she's great at it and always made fun of me. By the way if you are a multitasker, those of us who are not, find it quite rude when you're talking to us and doing something else at the same time. Ever notice how good it makes you feel when the person you're talking to is looking right at you, giving you all his or her attention? Think about it.

Anyway, my last post, about texting and driving, is a good example. I don't know about you, but it really helps when I focus on the task at hand. "So what's this all about", you may ask. I'll tell you.

On Monday, I took my grandson Ryan up to Clinton's "Canadian Motorcycle Training Services" for his first taste of offroad riding. It was his 10th birthday and I finally convinced his mom (my daughter) to let him go. Ryan had a fantastic experience and I posted a bunch of pictures in my August gallery here. Richard, Ryan's dad was also there: he didn't ride, he watched Ryan like I did, but I could see him itching to get on a bike. Next time. I was there to watch Ryan enjoying himself, to take care of the arrangements (it was his birthday present from me) and oh, by the way, to take pictures.

More than one purpose. Ah, you're starting to get my point. If I had been there just to take pictures, my results would have been substantially different. I can't multitask! Half the time I was out there, what was going through my mind was, "is he having fun? Is he learning? Look how well he's doing that!" Some of the time, I was watching and listening to Clinton because he's a superb instructor, relates wonderfully with the kids, and I'd like to be more like him (as an instructor) when I grow up.

I wasn't concentrating on taking pictures. Oh, I got some images, all right. But I ignored what was going on around me for the most part, and focused on Ryan alone. Shots when he was doing things technically correctly, showing the concentration on his face, trying to capture him having fun. This day was about him, not me.

Because I'm pretty comfortable with my camera equipment, because I can shoot pretty well without thinking about it, and use some of the advanced features of the D300, I was able to get some shots, but imagine if I had focused on the shooting! Here's one shot that I liked that came out of the day -- one of very few that wasn't all about Ryan:

After an hour or so learning how to work the bike, they took the kids to the "Farm" which is an open field with riding paths meandering through the wildflowers. It's more challenging than it looks. The 200mm lens
with medium depth of field was perfect for this image.

You know what? I wouldn't have taken that picture if Richard hadn't said something about how nice a shot that might be. We had also parked the car nearby and had walked into the field. I had the 200mm lens mounted on the camera, and didn't bother to bring anything else with me. Here's another shot taken from the same vantage point:

I had the luxury of being able to crop reasonably tightly because of the resolution of the D300 and the quality of the lens (I keep saying 200mm: it's a Nikkor 70-200VR f/2.8, great optics) and still maintain sharpness and contrast. The exposure was 1/320 sec at f/7.1. Even with VR, I strive for those kinds of shutter speeds for that extra sharpness.

Normally, when shooting action, you want to try different things, to achieve varying effects. And to me, somehow having motion in the shot makes the difference between a straight static capture and one which tells a story. The first image above tells a story, doesn't it? But not through motion. The second one, although I love the image, doesn't really say anything other than, this is a cool scene.

Here's another image that tells a great story: Clinton (that's him on the left: too bad I zoomed in a bit too tightly, it would have been a better image with more of him in it) is applauding Ryan's form and effort, going over the little jump standing up. But it looks like he's not moving (trials riders, eat your hearts out!) where he's actually riding at speed. The 1/500 sec shutter speed stopped the action completely. So while this makes a great poster, there's no sense of action here.

This shot, on the other hand, was taken at 1/100 sec and I panned the camera with the bike to create a motion blur. The other thing that adds to the action feeling is the composition: remember the "Rule of Thirds"? Look where Ryan is on that imaginary Tic-Tac-Toe grid. Notice the space in front and below the bike which gives the sense that he has somewhere to go in the picture.

So I spent half a day and about 150 exposures, and this was just about the only one with any motion in it. Those of you who have seen my other work know that I'm a big proponent of slow shutter speed and panning. Why didn't I do more shots like this? Because I was having too much fun watching Ryan having fun. I was multitasking.

OK. If I had been at Clinton's on assignment, documenting "A Day of Offroading", I would have done several things differently.
  • Consider what the desired final output was supposed to be:
    • A multimedia slide show
    • A printed brochure
    • Photos for a website, etc.
  • I would have prepared by storyboarding what I wanted to shoot.
    • What the facility looks like
    • Signing in
    • Getting dressed (I did take a shot or two)
    • Preparatory 'classroom' session
    • Sitting on the bike
    • First lap on the novice track, etc.
  • I would have prepared the equipment I needed and made sure I had it with me at all times
    • Inside shot and classroom needs the wide angle lens and perhaps the flash/diffuser for lighting
    • I was able to get close to the novice track so a normal lens (my 24-120) with VR was the right choice.
    • In the field or at the big track, the long lens was the primary choice, but imagine the drama of a low angle wide angle shot of a bike going by.
  • I would have made sure I got a wide variety of angles and effects
    • Low-to-the-ground close up wide angle shots
    • Telephoto shots
    • Multiple riders
    • Faces in sharp focus
    • Panning motion
    • Lens zoom motion
    • Low and high depth-of-field shots
    • Posed shots before and after riding
    • Get riders to go through the mud to get that splattered image and more action/motion.

I did get most of these (check out my August 2009 gallery here), but not with care and planning, with luck. But I wasn't there on assignment, I was documenting Ryan having fun at his first off-road experience. All of these steps and techniques would have made for better pictures, but then I wouldn't have been able to enjoy Ryan's experience as much as I did, and that was my goal for the day.

So the concepts touched on in this Blog post were:

  • Know what your goals are.
  • Multitasking is great for casual shooting but if you want to get some serious pictures, especially with action shots, you have to be focused on what you're trying to accomplish.
  • Plan ahead. Even if you're just out shooting for fun, you'll get better pictures if you spend a few minutes thinking about the possibilities
  • Your equipment is important: make sure you have what you need, that it all works (my first battery wasn't fully charged and died so I missed Ryan's first lap). And if you leave it behind in the car, then you're limiting your possibilities.
  • Know how to use it so that you can concentrate on the shot, not the mechanics. Practice, practice, practice.
  • Try a variety of techniques when shooting action. Freeze motion, pan, backlight, close-up, wide angle and telephoto. Your results may surprise you.

So let me leave you with one more image from that day: Ryan, on the left, took the other rider on that curve on the track. I'm pretty sure the other kid has ridden before. By the way, Ryan was registered for a half-day, dirt riding course, so the name tag they put on him said, "RYAN - HALF DIRT". I smell a new nickname coming!