Saturday, December 19, 2009

Busy, busy times!


I’m sitting here writing this in front of a curved bank of 3 monitors. The Biggest one is on the left, it’s the new 25” spectacular HP screen, running Lightroom and showing me the selection of photos that I’ve chosen to accompany this post. This new monitor is outstanding.

When the screensaver comes on, it runs a slideshow of my favourite images. I’ve seen them before, obviously – it’s the same screensaver I use on the other computer – but they’re so bright and crisp, I get carried away just watching them. I love this new monitor, but the only issue with it is that it’s too brilliant. I just got some prints back and they’re less than I’d hoped: the operative word is “muddy”. The colours are calibrated on the new monitor, but the image is so brilliant and beautiful I don’t want to turn it down! In future, I’ll use the other monitor for final tweaking of the brightness and contrast levels of my photos before sending them to print or posting them.

To my right is the laptop screen. My Blog is onscreen, with the previous post showing so that I can refer to it as I write this one. It’s dull by comparison.

In the middle is my Dell monitor, the one I’ve been using as the secondary monitor with the laptop up to now. It’s currently connected to the laptop, and I’m running MS Word, writing this. I like to pre-write the blog in Word, then cut and paste it in when I’m done. I installed a “KVM” switch – a $25 device I picked up at Tiger Direct which allows me to switch this monitor to either computer, along with the keyboard and mouse (actually my Wacom tablet/mouse) at the press of a button. Slick. I keep an extra mouse plugged into the HP computer, and I have the touchpad on the laptop keyboard, so I can navigate and switch pages and applications on the machine the keyboard is not connected to (great English, right? “Never end a sentence a preposition with!”).


Cool. Looks like the dashboard of a Boeing 787. My computer table is getting a little crowded, but if I sit up and look out the window, I can still see a corner of the lake. Or I could if it weren’t night. Or winter. The Inn across the road has some Christmas lights up, I really should go out and take some night shots. Nah, it’s -20°C out there. I’m rambling, aren’t I?



Tell your friends what you want for Christmas.
Here are a few ideas. Clickable links.
  • A membership in NAPP. The gift that keeps on giving.
  • A Gary Fong Lightsphere. I used to carry a ton of lighting equipment, now just a piece of Tupperware in my camera bag. You want the “Cloud” one, choose the right size for your flash here (scroll down), and buy it here.
  • A 2x teleconverter for your long lens
  • A new lens. Nikon or Canon.
  • A new camera
OK, you're allowed to dream, right?

Here comes the whiny part: I haven’t done a Hell of a lot of productive work in the last week or more: installing this new computer, plus dealing with the networking issues took a lot of time. Then a Blackberry Desktop application upgrade crashed my laptop and I had to actually go back to an earlier restore point to get it going again (there must be a registry issue with my laptop. Any new software install causes it to sit and cogitate for 30 minutes or more on the first reboot afterwards. I’ll have to look into that sometime). Then we got hit with a gigantic snowstorm and I’ve been dealing with clearing snow, getting my snowblower repaired, having the roof cleared, etc. I also had to deal with updating a website I’m responsible for and helping Jim with a Santa Claus shoot. So it’s been busy, and that’s why it’s been 3 weeks since you’ve seen a new post in the Blog!

Took me a long time to say that, right? Oh well, that’s what you love about me! And I hope you like reading my stuff because this post is turning into a long one! Through the magic of the computer, I came back and added this paragraph after the fact and decided to postpone two topics I was going to include, for another day.

OK, so today’s Blog topics are:
  • Some computer issues
  • Switching to Lightroom
  • The wondrous human eye
Computer Issues.

Here’s the thing. I said I didn’t lose any data when I lost the old desktop, but when all is said and done, it takes forever to get a new machine up and running. I don’t want to start the old Mac vs. PC debate but…. Anyway I have my reasons for sticking with PC and I won’t bore you by going there.

I’ll just say this: what happened to the good old days when Windows was just one file? The Windows 7 folder contains over 65,000 files in over 14,000 folders and occupies 12.5Gb. Does anyone else think this is a little over the top?

Networking was the biggest timewaster. Here’s a hint, folks: in both Windows 7 and Vista you have to not only specify the folders you want to share, you also have to address the permissions in TWO places: on the sharing tab and on the security tab. You have to create a user named “Everyone” and set the permissions for it. “File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks” has to be turned on and installed. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to find someone who does. I could just barely do this, and not alone, either (thanks, Jim!). When I got up here today and fired up the laptop, it was all wrong and didn’t work again. I think it’s because I reverted to an earlier restore point because of the Blackberry-induced-crash. Hours. My internal body clock is all screwed up from these 3am days. I guess that’s why I’m writing this at 1:00am!

Lightroom

To top it all off, I decided to switch to Lightroom. I admit arguing strenuously against it and even ribbing Jim about it (the word “proselytize” comes to mind. He’s so committed to the program!). It’s a change in my workflow and, I hate to admit it, it’s better. But I’m on a learning curve into which I have to invest some time (better grammar?).

I installed the trial version when I set up the new machine. I argued that I could do the exact same functions using Bridge/CS4 and Camera Raw. I could – to an individual photo – but not to a batch of them, at least not with the ease that Lightroom does it. I have not installed the new LR3 Beta – too many bugs for now, I’m told – I’m running LR2.6. What really convinced me was a plug-in that allowed me to seamlessly upload a bunch of images to my Smugmug gallery.

Smugmug deserves a mention here. It’s where I host my galleries. It’s unlimited, loaded with features, and there are real live people behind it you can talk to if you have questions. It’s not free, but it’s very reasonable for what you get. If you look at it and decide you want to have your own Smugmug gallery, please paste this into the “referred by” field on the signup form: 16NrueyZ8KPmc. Or my email address (glenn dot springer at faczen dot com – you know what to replace!) and you’ll get a $5 discount on your membership and I’ll get a credit for my renewal too. Go to http://www.smugmug.com/ to see what it’s about, or check out my galleries at http://www.faczen.smugmug.com/ (badly in need of reorganization!).
One of the biggest Lightroom revelations for me was the concept that you don’t actually have to generate a .jpg for an image until you’re ready to. And you can change some parameters, like size and resolution, etc on a whole batch of images all at once.

Lightroom, like Photoshop, is a very deep program. I don’t know how to use it properly yet. Nor will I ever, I expect. It will take some time, but the workflow and organization of my images is vastly improved over what I’ve been doing up to now. I recommend it. I went back into my Photoshop User magazine archives (which you get if you’re a NAPP member (a hint you might give someone looking to get you a useful Christmas present!) and I’m re-reading the articles that I skipped in the past because I wasn’t a LR user. The first one I came to, oddly, posed exactly the same question that I had: “where’d all my pictures go?”. Unfortunately, it didn’t answer it: you open a folder and it says there are 50 pictures in it but it won’t show any of them to you. I’ll figure it out eventually! (Got it! Turn off the filters!)

The “Adjustment Brush” in LR is excellent. Non-destructive dodging and burning and clarity and saturation and sharpness and… all adjustable on specific areas of an image. Again, there are complexities in the tool I haven’t got to yet. I’m used to the concept from Camera Raw but this seems to work better. The cropping tool works like the one in PS except that when you drag, you’re dragging the image not the cropping rectangle! Takes a moment to figure out why it won’t move! I like to crop my images: there’s often stuff in a corner I don’t want, or I want to reframe an image to focus on something, and I don’t believe that everything has to follow rules, like be 8x10 proportion, etc. Non-conformist, that’s me!

Anyway, I can’t make this into a LR tutorial, it’s too long already. Just admitting that the millions of photographers out there who are committed to LR are not wrong. See? I can admit when I'm wrong!

The wondrous human eye (just musings)

I went out late one afternoon last week to talk with my neighbor (about my recalcitrant snowblower!). As I trudged home along the snowy road, I was greeted by a magically saturated dark blue sky with a few stars poking through, as the day faded into true night. It was incredibly beautiful, but I knew I couldn't capture it. Again, I stepped outside a few nights ago to enjoy some fresh air and I looked up at the stars, one of my favourite things to do. After a couple of minutes, my eyes adjusted to the light and I could see the millions of stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy painting a swath across the heavens. OK, I couldn’t see millions of them, but there were a LOT.

You can’t capture this on film, or in digital form. The camera does not have the dynamic range or the sensitivity to do it. There was too much ambient light that late afternoon to get a still image that would include the stars; the dark night scene can be done but not with pin-point sharpness – last post I showed a star shot but it was 10 seconds long at f/1.8 so there was some movement. You can turn up the ISO but then you get a grainy, noisy image. But your eyes can do it.

As I sit here writing this, my reflection in the HP monitor caught my eye. Can I capture this? Judge for yourself. But can I also include the nuances of shadows on the brightly sunlit snow outside the window at the same time? I think not. But I can see it.




I have lousy eyes. Astigmatic, needing several diopters of correction, I have floaters from a retina problem some years ago, my night vision sucks… and yet I can see so much better than my camera can. I have infinite depth of field – I can look at the hairs on my arm then pick out a small bird in a tree with no effort or noticeable time lag.

I think the HDR concept addresses some of those differences. HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range” (sorry for the basic level tutorial here) and essentially what you’re doing is making a composite image that reveals a much larger than normal range of light levels, more than the four octaves your camera can see, and closer to the seven your eyes can do (I hope I got those numbers right, it’s from memory).




I’m not very good at doing HDR’s but this image should give you some idea of what I’m talking about. A normal photo would either pick up the detail in the trees or the rich colours in the sky. You can pick out details in the bright sky and clouds lit by the sun, and at the same time see the nuances of the greys in the water and pick out the detail in the snow-covered trees by sandwiching exposures shot at different shutter speeds. That's what an HDR is. I also admit to some additional manipulation where I painted colour in the water and removed colour from the trees, but that’s not what this is about.

The depth of field issue is being newly addressed by a technique called “Focus Stacking” where images taken by focusing at different distances are combined so that everything is in focus.

I think that an upcoming generation of high end cameras will have both of these features built in. I don’t know how, or whether it will be soon, but I think that future photographers will be able to create incredible images that might approach how we actually see things. I hope I will still be around to see these advancements.

But I wrote this piece because I marvel at what the human eye can see and how powerful that built-in computer we call a brain really is.



In the spirit of not letting you go away without seeing some images, here are a few.

The following three images are terrible, technically. It was snowing fairly heavily and the subject was at least 300m away. I include them, though, for the purpose of considering how tightly to crop a subject.





The first image was shot with my 120mm lens. Notice how it tells the story about what’s going on – they’re clearing the snow off a cabin roof, the snow is deep and the roof is steep.




This is with the 400mm lens – or my 200mm with the Kenko 2x teleconverter (buy it here) It doesn’t really say that much, it’s an interesting composition but because of the quality due to the snow coming down, it doesn’t stand out.




This is a tighter crop and is compositionally more interesting but you lose the story. Sometimes you lose too much by trying to isolate the subject.

These two demonstrate a bit of what the camera can do, and are just images I enjoy.




This is exactly how my eye remembers seeing it. And for once, I didn’t do any fancy photoshop – the only thing I did in CS4 was to remove a couple of pieces of dirty snow that had fallen off a car and were in the frame on the right. Believe it or not, I shot this through my front windshield, while moving!



Here I wanted to convey the feeling of the deep snowfall we had had, but in order to show some detail in the snow I had to increase the contrast of the image and change the exposure. So I created a second layer of the wall and door, and changed its exposure values, then added considerable saturation. I used a layer mask to make those effects apply only to that part of the image.



Next time, I'm going to say a few words about the judges course I attended, and about how we set up and lit the "Santa Claus" shoot that I helped Jim with.