Friday, January 29, 2010

Winter's Back!

Winter's back with a vengeance. Boy, I wish I could go to Photoshop World in Orlando. If I were a full-time photographer, I would. Oh well. Check out my "Weather Bug" screen shot

They aren't kidding with the little igloo graphic! Not only is it -20°C but check out the winds: out of the North at 20kph. I wonder what the wind chill is at! I looked out the window at a brilliant tangerine sunset. The sky is crystal clear, as it usually is when it’s this cold. I thought of going out to take a shot or two… for about 3 seconds. I think I’ll stick near the fire. Now tonight, I might be up for some star time exposures… or not given how cold it is.
PS: it's now 9:45pm and the weather bug says -24°C and winds 26kph from the Northwest. Forget the star shots!
PPS: it's Saturday morning at 8:45am and I just added the weather bug image on the right. No words required.
I’m decidedly uninspired. I go through that from time to time as I’m sure almost everyone does. I’m up North and when I look out the window or go out for a walk, it’s the same-old, same-old. Although I seldom venture out without a camera, there isn’t a lot out there that begs to be photographed. It can be argued that every snow-capped fencepost or icicle presents a photographic challenge, but I’m not seeing them these past few days.

Still, I shot a few “camera motion” type forest scenes, my axe lying on a pile of freshly cut kindling, a dripping icicle…

I did get one image that I liked last week. I went for a drive to the Minden Wildwater Preserve where I shot kayakers in the summer and got this shot of the fast flowing water as it cut a path through the ice. I did do a little colour manipulation, to increase the visual contrast between the tree and the monochromatic winter scene.

I got the following image a couple of days ago. It was actually quite warm out and I was trying to capture the impression of the dangerous ice conditions. I wasn't successful. However I started playing with this picture and kind of liked the results.

I want you to know that this picture never saw Photoshop! It was entirely done in Lightroom which is about to become my main topic of discussion for a while.
By the way, Apple just announced their iPad. I hear there’s going to be a high end version with 64Gb of memory. Rumour has it it will be dubbed the “Maxi-Pad”. Sorry. Had to.

There are a few other small topics I’d like to share before I dive into the main subject of this post.

Snapshots vs. composed images

You don’t always have the time – or want to make the effort – to compose your images. Or do you? Certainly, if you practice enough, if you’re familiar with your equipment and if you have an understanding of the ‘rules’ of photography (even if you don’t follow them all the time), even your snapshots will be reasonably good. If you’re a sports photographer or a journalist, your only chance of success is to be able to capture images instantaneously without a lot of forethought or preplanning. Or is it?

Well maybe not. I’ve recently been looking at some sports pictures and trying to analyse them a bit. Last year, I attended a couple of presentations by Richard Lautens of the Toronto Star and he talked about all the pre-planning that went into some of his images: choosing the best vantage point, prefocusing, being aware of backgrounds, etc. But what I’m talking about is that spur-of-the-moment opportunity, stuff that happens without warning.

Here’s one that was ALMOST successful but in the end, was not because of inattention to detail. The grader came by and plowed in my driveway. A followup tractor cleared my neighbour’s place, but not mine, so I ran out to try to grab him on the way back and ask him to do mine too. He had been intending to all along but needed to do mine from the other direction so was going to catch it on the way back. I thought the bright yellow tractor would make a dandy shot, so I ran back into the house to grab the camera. I knew I had only a few seconds, but the wrong lens was on the camera! I mounted the 24-120, ran out the door and fired off a quick shot or two.

So what's wrong with this picture? I’ve talked before about using your eyes and not missing things. I did it again: notice the wind chimes and bird feeder in the foreground that ruined the shot. One step to the right and it would have been so much better. This is laziness. This is ‘knowing’ in my mind that I can fix all kinds of stuff in PhotoShop so I’m not careful and I ignore a lot of things.

So I’m posting a not-very-good image in the hope that you’ll get the message. Use your eyes. Look at your picture BEFORE you trigger the shutter.

I did a little better with this next shot. It is cropped slightly, to get rid of a tree on the right and excessive foreground. I can clone out the telephone pole and wires on the left (I didn’t crop them out because the back of the tractor would have been too close to the frame edge). I took several shots, this was the best because the building was not entirely obscured and the tractor was in the right “rule of thirds” location in the image. That’s what I mean: I actually thought of that as I composed the picture. And it worked (in my humble opinion).

Here’s one more “Snapshot” that ALMOST works. Not terrible, but not great. Here, I should have moved the bowl to the right a bit and zoomed out to include more space at the bottom. And shot from a different camera angle instead of straight down. I did not take the time to mount the external flash or the Gary Fong diffuser for a purely selfish reason! My dinner was hot and I was hungry! Letting it cool and microwaving it would have ruined it, so I chose my stomach first! Shot using the horrible on-camera flash.

Home made Pad Thai. Completely from scratch, except for the sauce that came out of a bottle. And the rice noodles that I should have separated a bit more. I do have some talents…
Speaking of Gary Fong, he should be paying me for this.
I have to say, that Gary Fong diffuser is probably the best $50 that I ever spent. Every time I use it, I’m impressed. I tried something a little different yesterday with some success!

You know what it is, right? It’s a piece of plastic that looks like a Tupperware bowl and fits on your flash. I’ve written about it before or you can go here to read about it and even see a little video. You can buy it lots of places, the best one of which is B&H Photo in New York. Choose which one fits your flash, then go here to buy it.

Up to now, whenever I’ve used it, I’ve gotten really even, really soft light. I don’t know exactly why the results were different last weekend— well I do, but I didn’t expect it. Here’s my setup.

The subject was seated in that chair, I was standing off to the left outside the frame of this picture and I had the subject turn his or her head to look over their left shoulder at the camera. This gives some depth to the picture and changes the dynamic. Having the subject totally square to the camera makes for a horrible image. The flash was controlled by the “Commander” mode in my D300 (most of the DSLRs will do this). The on-camera flash triggers the other one and in this case, I set the popup flash so that its light was NOT captured in the image. In other words, the only light was from the SB-600 flash and the diffuser.

The shadow on the left side of the subject’s face was fairly deep because there was nothing on their left to reflect light. Some light bounced down from the ceiling to define the hair (or lack thereof!). That’s OK – another one of those ‘rules’ is there can be as much as a 3:1 ratio between the amount of light on the two sides. But if I hadn't been so lazy, I should have brought a reflector disk with me. I will next time.The higher the ratio, the more dramatic the image but for an ID shot, I’m pushing the limits here. Notice the nice skin texture (click the pictures to blow them up). Great for guys but not so good for girls! So I went back and reduced the clarity in Lightroom on the girl’s picture. Here’s another version where I really cranked that slider down so you can see its effect better. I wouldn't normally make it so extreme, but this demonstrates how it works.

The black guy was a real problem. His skin was MUCH darker than it even appears in the picture, and I COULD NOT get a good exposure. I had to adjust it in LR and PS to make it acceptable. Again I had to reduce the clarity to get rid of the hard reflections . More importantly, the reduced light on his left side didn’t get any of the detail on that side of his face. I added a graduated filter to bring that side up substantially. It’s really quite easy in Lightroom! Compare the following picture with the one above.

OK. Now for the main feature. I’ll wait right here while you go make some popcorn.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2
The Lightroom articles will all be in this colour. So if you're not interested in LR,
you can simply skip over it. Go ahead, I dare you!
First this disclaimer: “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the communist party.” Oh wait, wrong Blog. Seems to me that quote would be lost on anyone much younger than I am. Of course you could Google it… What I really want to say is that I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert. But I figured that by sharing my learning experience with you, you might get a fresh insight.

There are a million different ways to do things. Adobe Lightroom is just one of them but its approach to the management of photo files and the workflow of a photographer is elegant. The problem is, like Photoshop (PS), it’s such a deep program, it has endless little alleys and pathways to explore and a steep learning curve if you want to use it right.

I don’t have formal training. Not as a photographer, not as computer nerd, not as a writer, or an artist. Hell, I ran a graphic design company for years, doing graphics and layouts and pre-press, without ever taking a course or anything. And a photo studio. I learned FORTRAN in college, then taught myself about 6 other computer languages. I learned PS by muddling through it on my own, by watching what other people accomplished. I’m one of those people who needs to understand WHY you do something, the WHAT just comes. As a former formally trained mathematician and theoretical physicist, that’s how I learned – I’d derive things from basic principles so I had a pretty good understanding of what was behind the math. I was pretty good at that and I have deep regrets that I didn’t pursue it

So why am I telling you this? Why am I sharing the secrets of my soul? Because that’s how I’m learning LR as well. I figure that knowing WHY you do something is the easiest way to learn HOW to do it. So when Jim helped me set up LR on my new computer and gave me a 20-minute tutorial on how to make it work, I went home and started playing with it on my own (I had fiddled with it before so I had a basic idea what it was about). I very quickly realized that I couldn’t learn to use it properly in a vacuum – and if you didn’t set it up right, you were never going to get the benefit of what LR’s designers had in mind when they created it, then refined it

Scott Kelby, the President of NAPP, has a great teaching style. I’ve read more than one book and article of his (he regularly contributes to Photoshop User magazine which, as I’ve said several times before, is VERY worth subscribing to, click here). So I bought his book, “The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 Book for Digital Photographers” and I read it cover to cover. He also explains WHY. The only objection I really have to his approach is his heavy reliance on keyboard shortcuts, which I can’t remember even when I turn to the next page, never mind a day later! “Press ctrl-alt-shift-delete while holding down the right mouse button with your nose and like magic, the icicles will fall off your roof” {Scott, at least include a reference page in your books listing the shortcuts!}. LR has lots and lots of little trick things in it, flippy triangles to click and switches to turn off and panels filled with scrubby sliders. Scott’s a detail guy – he’ll say, “reduce the clarity to 61% then increase the saturation by 9%...” but you have to understand he’s just telling you exactly what he did for THAT image and you’re not expected to remember the exact numbers, just the concepts.

I’m rambling. I’d say “to make a long story short…” but it’s way too late for that! I’m planning to write up my LR learning curve. I’ll break it up into a series of articles and try to make it sequential so you can follow it. I’m directing these articles toward those people who would also like to start using LR, and to those who are already using it but are not convinced that they are doing it right and would enjoy picking up a few tips here and there. I’ll differentiate it from the rest of the Blog so that you can skip the LR tutorials if you’re not interested.

Again, this is just a view of my experiences learning the program on my own, and some of the pitfalls I’ve avoided (and fallen into!). I’m not going to explain HOW to do stuff – pick up Kelby’s book or learn by playing with it. I’m going to try to get the concepts across, the WHY.

Another way you can learn how, and again some of why, is to spend some time with Jim Camelford. I spent an hour on the phone with him the other day and came away understanding a lot more about LR. He’s teaching LR to small groups of people, even 1 on 1, and he’ll go anywhere in the world to teach you. He’s really good at it. Contact him at

There are 3 things in LR that have convinced me to switch. I’ll tell you what they are, and they may convince you that you should too. Or not. Then I’ll talk to you one at a time about those 3 things. It’s going to take me a while to do that, so you can either browse the sections until they’re all finished or just take me at my word and dive right in. It’s up to you.

Here are the 3 things that I found that LR does really well (among many others):

1. Organizing your photos. LR makes it possible – actually easy – to organize and later find your pictures. You can save your favourites, dump the rejects, mark and group them by subject and function and any other way you can think of, and you can do all this quickly with a minimum of effort. If you think this is trivial, you’re wrong.

2. You can edit your pictures one at a time or in batches, much faster and easier than porting over into PS and all of your edits are non-destructive and reversible. And elegant. Sure, there’s some stuff you have to go to PS to do, but you can do that and come back to LR with ONE MOUSECLICK.

3. You can output pictures for dedicated purposes with virtually one click of the mouse. For instance, I gathered the pictures I want to enter in the next club competition, then exported them to a folder called ‘xport rhcc competitions’. I resized the images to the club’s specifications, got rid of the watermark, sharpened them for viewing onscreen, renamed them and took the metadata with them all in one shot. And if I have to do it again tomorrow, it’s now ONE MOUSECLICK. Oh and if I want to print these pictures, or upload them to my SmugMug site or even create a Flash web gallery page, once I’ve set it up it’s ONE MOUSECLICK. Oh, and I did the same thing with the pictures in this Blog.

OK, now you decide. We’ll get started next time.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

It's January in Canada. Brrrr....

December is an active month. There’s lots of stuff going on, revolving around the holidays, people, parties… and winter is just beginning so you get your cold-weather stuff out in preparation and venture out to make sure everything works and keeps you warm. January is another story. It's a quiet time, and I have to work at getting motivated after the holidays.

Maybe it’s just the weather. As I write this, my thermometer says -17.6°C (that’s close to 0°F). It’s 8:30am and it’s dull out – f/8 at 1/15 sec, ISO 400. It’s snowing lightly, but you can see the wind swirling the snow off the ground, you know it’s cold out there. Every now and then, the snow drops off the heavily laden trees, making it look like a full-blown blizzard out there.

Last post, I showed you how the lake hasn’t yet frozen over, but now it has. The locals have put their ice fishing huts out and one guy I talked to said the ice was 9” (22cm) thick out there, and that was a couple of days ago when it was still hovering around the freezing mark. Last year I went out and took a few pictures of ice fishermen, I’ll probably do so again this year. I may even get a chance to go out and actually fish a little: it’s warm in the huts and it looks like a good excuse to relax and wet one’s whistle, so to speak.

OK, the huts are not really RGB (oh, you didn't notice?). Well the blue one is, but I coloured the others. The Red Umbrella Inn prepared the huts to be dragged out on the ice and took most of them out there on Saturday, January 2.

Inside one of their huts. Notice the heater and the mandatory "2-4".
This was taken last year

This fellow was nice and cozy in his portable hut. Also from last winter.
Going to shoot some pictures out in the cold?

Just a few thoughts about what you should do if you’re taking your camera out to shoot pictures in the cold:
  • Dress warmly. You can’t take good pictures if you’re shivering and you probably won’t have the patience to wait for that perfect shot if all you can think about is getting back indoors. Overdress, in layers so if you get too warm, you can open up things or take them off.
  • I have a very fine set of wool underwear. People think wool is itchy, but not this fine stuff. I’ve tried lots of other types but I’m always warm when I’m wearing this. And it actually wicks moisture away so it’s not too hot either. I wear them when I’m motorcycling or teaching the riding course on cool days. It’s called “Next to Skin” or something like that, and I bought it in a camping/outdoor store (Tent City on Steeles/Dufferin in Thornhill). I know the owner, and he told me to buy it, even though it was expensive. He was right: you can’t go wrong buying the best.
  • Gloves are important. Yesterday I went out with a light pair of fleece gloves and within 5 minutes, my hands were cold. I actually have a set of layered gloves (inner glove liners, and over-mitts, which I admit I probably can’t press a shutter release with, but I can take them off to shoot and still not have bare hands. Anyway it’s winter in Canada, and if you don’t know how to dress for it, you should either stay indoors or live somewhere else.
  • That camera body is cold. So is your tripod. Stop by the local hardware store and get that foam stuff they use for wrapping pipes, and put them around the legs of your tripod.

  • Let’s talk about your camera. And your lens. They’re in a nice warm room, then suddenly you take them out in the cold. What happens? Not a lot. You would think that the air inside your camera, which contains a lot more moisture than the cold air can hold, would cause condensation to form. Maybe, but unless the camera is airtight, that moist air is going to get exchanged with outside air. So you might correct me if I’m wrong, but not much really happens, unless you do something silly like remove the lens and blow in the camera.
  • Do you wear glasses? Do they fog up when you go out in the cold? Not unless you breathe on them. But what happens when you come back inside? NOW THEY FOG UP. Why? Because the surface of the (glass or plastic) is colder than the air, and that moisture condenses on the cold surfaces. This can also happen inside your camera. So here’s a recent suggestion by Lance Gitter: seal your camera inside a big plastic bag when you come in from the cold (hmmm. I wonder if that would make a good book title? Nah, it might have been done before…). Now it’s surrounded by the cold outside air which contains very little moisture, so nothing will fog up. Let it slowly warm up to the inside temperature before opening the bag. Make sense?
Here’s a free suggestion. What’s it like inside your camera bag? I keep several packets of silica gel in the bag, which will absorb excess moisture. Where do you get silica gel? Try your local audio/video store – they often pack some in with electronic gear. Or motorcycle dealerships – Japanese bikes that come by seafreight from overseas have silica gel inside the crates, which the dealer throws away when they unpack the bikes. I found some at a shoe store: little packets inside every shoe box. A friendly store manager let me have a couple of dozen little packets.
  • Cold temperatures affect your batteries. But you knew that. Just like a car battery, they deliver much less power in the cold, so keep it charged up and a spare in an inside pocket.
If the weather outside is frightening (tune stuck in your head?), you want to protect your camera against the elements. Pretty well all cameras are reasonably resistant to moisture, but not completely. So you can get them a little wet with no damage. WARNING: that is NOT true if you’re in a marine environment where there’s salt water. Salt will EAT your camera

I worry about water and stuff like windblown sand getting into the camera or in between moving parts. So I bought a “Storm Jacket” which I use when it’s nasty out. There are lots of different ones, but the one I bought has elastics at both ends so you can seal it at your lens hood, and you can leave the back open to access your controls and viewfinder.

This is mine. You can buy it here 

There are lots of different brands, ranging in cost from $15 up. Look here

Of course a simple solution is a plastic garbage bag with a hole torn in the bottom to stick the end of your lens through. You obviously can’t shoot through the plastic. You could also use a garbage bag as a raincoat, but doesn’t a real one make more sense?

I did go out to shoot a few pictures in the last few days. I think it was worth the effort. The snowmobile is the ubiquitous transportation mechanism to mid-lake, although people actually walk out on occasion.

I told you it was worth going out in the snowstorm to shoot pictures! This one's going in my favourites folder and is being submitted for competition as well.
Sunsets are different in the winter, too:

Some indoor photos!
Instead of going out in the cold, I decided to set up my light tent on the dining room table. I was curious if there would be enough light just relying on whatever came in through the windows. There was, because being on the tripod, I could simply increase the exposure time.

I was also curious whether I needed more than one light source. Turns out, I didn’t. I set the camera in ‘commander’ mode and remotely triggered the Nikon SB-600 , holding it in different places – inside and outside the light tent, from various angles. The differences were subtle. All of the following pictures used different setups, and they all look very similar.

This is a 60 Gb Creative Zen Vision M. It's for sale. Send me an email if you're interested in a steal!

I also played with direct lighting from a little flashlight.

So the message is, you don’t have to go out in the cold to take some neat pictures.

Light tents are not expensive, and easy to use. They fold down like a reflector disk, but damned if I can figure out how to fold it back into its original shape!

You can get one here.

A quick word about Lightroom.
I love it. I find myself editing things much faster and especially, when I output images. The pictures for this Blog took me about 5 minutes to prepare: I saved them in a collection called “Blog Topics”, then selected the ones that I wanted, clicked “Export” and chose a preset to fit them in a 1280x1024 container. Done. All I had to do after that was drag them across the network to the other computer (which I probably could have done directly, but I wanted to keep them in one place for archiving).

I still get confused a bit – for instance I’ll select a whole new collection and find the image I was looking at before still on the other monitor. I dunno why! Next time I’ll talk about the workflow, and flagging, rating and labeling images. I want to work on my routine a bit more before I share it.

Have a great day!