Monday, December 27, 2010

I got lucky last night!

OK well not THAT kind of “lucky” but that’s not a subject for this blog. (My last post was titled, "The Earth Moved...". Anyone detect a common thread here?)

I set out to shoot a picture, researched it, planned it, set it up... and it didn’t work. But in the process I kind of got an image that I like! This is kind of a long tutorial on the thinking that went into the shot. It might give you some ideas about how to do similar shots and some pitfalls to avoid. But if you’re not a photographer, or you want to avoid having to read through a bunch of stuff before scrolling down to the image, here it is: enjoy.

As usual you can click on the image to view it larger. You can also see it in my gallery at Smugmug where high resolution prints are available for sale at very reasonable cost.

Here’s the thing. I was in a ‘celestial’ mood after that eclipse event. I got home last night to a clear, starry night and thought, what’s the longest exposure I ever did? I checked and I think, around 80 minutes. Nice long star trails, but I saw an image a couple of days ago with much longer trails and I think the maker said it was a 4 hour exposure, so I set out to do one.

What settings? I looked at my earlier work and saw settings like ISO 100, f/8. So, I though, how can I go wrong by just stopping down a stop to f/11 and shooting for a longer time? I can always tweak it in Lightroom or Photoshop to adjust the exposure as long as I’m reasonably close.

What lens? Since I wanted to see a really big area of sky, the simple answer is, my wide angle. I decided to go whole hog, and cranked my 12-24mm to its widest setting.

Physical setup: Do I have to say, locked down solid on a tripod? I used my big Gitzo for greatest stability. Last time, my pictures came out on an angle because it’s hard to aim in the dark. So I set up the tripod in the house, levelled the camera and pointed the lens at the sky. Not straight up – I wanted some terrestrial objects in the picture.

That’s important, by the way. Star trails are neat but if you don’t have anything else in the picture, well, they’re boring.

I attached my cable release, put in a fresh battery, preset the exposure to “Manual – Bulb” and f/11, ISO 100, focused to infinity and turned off autofocus. If this lens had a VR setting I would have turned it off too. Then I bundled up in my sheepskin jacket and boots, threw a little flashlight in my pocket and trudged out to where I wanted to put the camera.

Next challenge. Where? I don’t have the ideal property for this. There’s only one place on my property where I get a reasonably clear view to the North and that’s behind the garage. Trouble is, you can also see the highway from there. I thought, I wonder what it’ll look like if cars drive by – will they pollute the light or create reflections on the lens? I thought I’d test this first, so I changed the camera settings to f/4, ISO 1000 temporarily, so I could take a couple of test shots without having to wait an hour to see them. I did a few 30-second shots. Having the flashlight with me was a good idea... well yes, there was a definite trail of light, way overexposed at the bottom of the image, no detectible splash on the rest of the picture, and I could crop that off. OK, reset to the long exposure settings. Besides, each car going by was only going to be in the frame for a few seconds and I was at f/11.

By the way, the Inn across the road keeps their big parking lot light on all night. I’ve talked to them about it, they agree it should be turned off, but haven’t done it yet. That’s why I had to go behind the garage. I could take my camera down to the dock but I don’t think I’d want to leave it there unattended for several hours, although I could put it where nobody would see it. Besides it’s a long walk in the cold.

So far, so good, right? Anyone catch on yet to what the problem was? Give yourself a brownie point if you did. Well here it is...

I set it up, locked the shutter open and went back inside to sit by the fire and enjoy my evening. It was 7:30 when I put it out, and I figured 11:30 when I would go out and retrieve it. Some time a couple of hours later, I thought, hmmm. The way Noise Reduction works on the Nikon is that it hums and whirs for the same length of time as the original shot, creating a null image (it doesn’t actually take a picture) and then it electronically merges the two images, subtracting any noise or artifacts generated internally in the camera from the picture. Ideally this should be done under the same conditions as the original picture, which means leaving the camera outside, chugging away for 4 hours. I could bring it to my back porch though. But then, it would be 3:30am before I could bring it in. I wimped out. At 10:30 I decided enough was enough, and I went out to get the camera. I got there, unlocked the shutter release and... NOTHING HAPPENED.

AHHHHH! Is my camera frozen? No... the battery was dead. It turned out that the battery lasted almost exactly 2 hours in -12°C temperatures. And that also meant, NO NOISE REDUCTION. It had shut down. {sigh}.
I brought everything inside (I took the CF card out and put the camera in an airtight drybag with outside air, to warm up in a dry environment. I’ve written about this before) and plugged the card into the computer. Hey.... not bad!

OK, I looked at the image and really wasn’t too excited about the distortion caused by pointing a wide angle lens at an angle. I tried perspective cropping to straighten things up, but nah... even the North star wasn’t a ‘point’. There were a bunch of little red and blue and white speckles all over the place – that’s the noise I couldn’t cancel. The trees were kind of neat, but the car trails and the barn at lower left which was distorted and overexposed were not, shall we say, pleasing.

Here’s the original image

So I ended up cropping it. I did use Topaz, two different ways. I played with some extreme effects and ended up using a ‘simplify’ setting, then played with saturations and came up with this one:

The final picture, which I showed you first, actually did contain a bit of ‘topaz’. I wanted to use the smoothing, simplify effect, but I wanted to bring out the star trails which got reduced by the filter effect. I liked what it did to the trees, though. So I added a layer mask and added a radial gradient on the layer mask centered on the North star which masked the entire Topaz-adjusted layer in that area. Back to Lightroom for a final crop, and we’re done.

So I got lucky. I thought of everything EXCEPT battery life. If I really want to do long time exposures, I have to find a way to power the camera externally, something I’m going to explore and report on when I figure it out. The other issue was the distortion which I think I can only fix by centering the image on the North Star or using a longer focal length lens. More stuff to think about!

Next: I have some saved-up topics but the moon and the star trails posts were too long to include them. I have some pictures of my new car, some frozen waterfall and mountain stream pictures and a neat HDR I’d like to show you. Later!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Earth moved (under my feet)

First, Season's Greetings, everyone!

I know, not your typical greeting card, but I was think about riding my motorcycle in the snow, then decided it was too cold and had a virtual ride instead!
There was a Lunar Eclipse.
Which you already know, unless you're an ostrich. I’m going to go through the thought process and technique for creating the image I did. Perhaps you will find it instructive and give you some idea of things to try. If you’re not a photographer and not interested in the details, just scroll down to the photo.

The eclipse started at around 1:30 am and ended several hours later. Well, it was cold! -15°C. Since the earth moves (yeah, yeah. I already did those jokes), I couldn’t just set the camera up, turn on the interval timer and go to bed. Furthermore, the exposure changes.

My first idea was to do a composite multiple exposure image in camera. I did a little arithmetic (360°/day = 15°/hour, so a 180mm lens on a 35mm camera (120mm on a DSLR) which the internet says shows about 13° along the diagonal so if you get the movement perfect, you’ve got less than an hour). I tested it with 4 shots at 5 minute intervals and found it to be relatively accurate. So I have a composite picture of 4 small moons about a lunar diameter and a half apart. Not great. and I’d have to be right on, making sure the camera pointed directly along the path the moon would follow.

Then there’s the exposure issue. The bright full moon was properly exposed at 1/200 sec at f/11, ISO 100. Clearly, I would need a longer exposure at totality. Anyone care to guess how much? Well the difference between the full moon shot at 8:30pm and a totality image at 3:30 am was... wait for it... OVER 10 STOPS! The best totality shot was 1.6 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 400.

So clearly, I wasn’t going to be able to automate this process. I decided to shoot individual shots at maximum magnification (which for me is 400mm – my 70-200 lens and 2x teleconverter. Experience tells me that to get a sharp image with that combination, at anything under 1/100 second even on the tripod, I would have to do everything right. The results show that I was correct. More later.

I did a test around 8:30pm, as I said 1/200 sec was the best exposure. I used the self-timer to stabilize the camera. An alternative method was to use the mirror-up setting and a cable release. I locked the mirror up with one push of the release, waited several seconds for the camera to stabilize, then released the shutter. That worked all right down to about ¼ second. Slower than that, things got a little fuzzy because, well, the earth moves. With the angle of view of the 400mm lens combination (less than 5° along the diagonal, you can see definite motion trails in exposures as short as 1 second. I didn’t realize that at the time so it was lucky that I bracketed my shots.

The Nikon D300 can be set to bracket up to 9 exposures – I chose to do 5 – at 1 stop apart. By the way, you can set the interval timer to do bursts too: I tried it – I did four 5-shot bursts 5 seconds apart, all automatically! Not good for this eclipse thing, but something to file away for future use.

I figured out what the moon’s path was going to be with the help of the Star Walk app on my iPad. In hindsight, pretty obvious: at the winter solstice, full moon directly opposite the sun, due East to due West. I found a spot for the camera where ambient light wouldn’t interfere and where I had a clear view to the West.

So I sat at the camera, out in the cold for 2 hours doin’ ma thang. Brrr. A couple of times I went inside, but the hassle of de-fogging my glasses, getting dressed and undressed was too much and besides as the eclipse started, it was fascinating to watch. So I stayed out there for the most part.

By the way, you go through batteries like mad in the cold! Especially if you use LiveView to help focus and frame. I used up 3 batteries.

I was not happy with my tripod/head. I have a good one – a Gitzo heavy duty tripod with a Manfrotto ball head. But at 400mm, when you centre the moon in the viewfinder and lock down the head, it moves so much that it’s actually touching the bottom of the frame. And I had put the tripod mount on the lens collar so it was balanced, too. Somewhere on my wish list is a Wimberley mount...

At 3:30 am I called it a night, since the moon had been in totality for the better part of an hour and I was too tired to calculate how long before it would start to come out of the penumbra. I took the CF card out of the camera, put the camera and lens in an airtight drybag to warm up in dry air, and went inside. I immediately uploaded the images to the computer and was a little disappointed with the sharpness of the totality images which had been at really long exposures.

My goal was to put multiple exposures on one image. So I opened up a new image. I decided I wanted about 1000 pixels per lunar image and I had pre-selected 13 frames. A little air on either side meant that I needed 16000 pixels. A HUGE file.

I wanted the moon to follow a curved path. So I used the elliptical selection tool and scaled it up much bigger than the image itself so I could see the path I wanted. Then I filled everything with black and stroked the path with white and put it on its own layer, which I would use but make invisible before printing. Now I brought in the selected images and placed them along the white curve. They overlapped so I changed the blend mode for each layer to “lighten” – remember I was working on a solid black background.

The last two images, by the way, were shot without the teleconverter so I had to scale them up by 200% to make them match. I tweaked the exposure values for each layer as I went along so that everything matched, more or less.

Finally, I added some text layers, a keyline to define the edge of the image and that 8:30pm really sharp moon photo to balance the page. Here’s the result. Was it worth it? You tell me..

You can see a larger image by clicking on the picture, and an even larger one by going to my Smugmug site here. Not the full 16,000 pixel one, though -- that's saved for printing and hopefully for sale.
I haven’t printed it yet. I got the order process wrong at Costco for a poster and will have to go back again next week. I’ll let you know how it turns out. They can do posters up to 24x36 for $20. We’ll see...

I have more images to show you of other stuff but I’ve written too much here. Next time!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gallery prints

Printing from Lightroom
Last week I started experimenting with the 'Print' module in Lightroom. Right away I ran into some trouble and some limitations, but I worked through it with the help of Jim Camelford and the NAPP users forums (fori?).

My intention was to create templates that I could use to produce large format prints. Among other challenges was the difficulty of specifying page sizes for printers I don't own, for example if I want to send prints out to a bureau or to Costco. Jim set me straight on that one: you have to specify "print to a jpg" and then you can set any size you want.

A limitation is in trying to print text with the image. I created a graphic identity plate in Photoshop. Although it's only text, I wanted greater control over fonts, weight, spacing, kerning, etc. I quickly discovered that you can't make a 50% grey version because that only works on a light background if you start with black type, and on a dark background if you start with white! So I made two of them.

Next I searched and searched and searched some more for a way to put the name of the image below it, but in a font and position that I wanted. No such luck. I'm going to post that as a 'feature request' on the Adobe site (it won't let me do it from the iPad and the computer's in the shop).

Anyway, here's what I came up with:


Perpetual Motion

Snow Fence

NAPP helped me with another problem: the tab "apply during import" disappeared. I still don't know why but they helped me get it back (sometimes LR is less than intuitive: right-click on one of the remaining tabs and select it from the contextual drop down menu. Right. Like I was going to find that on my own!). Another reason to join NAPP. Click the link at right. I'll wait right here.

So anyway, if someone wants to order a 12x18 or smaller print, I'm ready (just have to create a gallery on Smugmug). If someone wants a bigger print, I have to do a little more research!

A great tip from Jim
If you shoot a higher end DSLR from Nikon, check this out. If you specify a number of bracketed exposures (say 5 or 7), and you're in CH or CL mode and you hold down the shutter release, that's how many exposures it will take! Now ain't that a smart camera! Thanks, Jim Camelford. You're a smart man. Smarter still, since you're in sunny Florida, and we're up here in the snow and freezing temps. Of course that means you're not going to get a lot of dogsled race pictures!

So why's my computer in the shop?
It's like this. I got bitten by some MalWare (gotta stop looking at those nekkid women sites or checking up on my Nigerian inheritance! Seriously, I have no clue where I got it). Very creative, too. I was convinced that I was looking at a Lenovo (IBM) system failure warning. I was momentarily actually tempted to give them my $69 to buy the repair software.

Anyway, I tasted the sharp copper bite of my impending doom. My pictures are backed up, but what would I be in for if I had to recover from a disk crash? Can you imagine reinstalling all those programs you use every day? So I brought my laptop to Bob, the "Greek Geek". He's going to ghost the hard drive to a fresh 500Gb external drive I bought ($65 at Costco) upgrade the O/S to Win7, and make sure it's running smoothly.

The backup issue is rearing it's ugly head again. I'm going to leave you, dear reader, with a question to ponder: What would you do if someone broke into your house and stole ALL your computer gear? Or what would you do if your house burned down.. Think about it.

Well let's see about getting this posted on the Blog, if I remember how to do it from the iPad. Catch y'all later!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, December 05, 2010

What do YOU want for Christmas?

What I want for Christmas

I started to write a piece on photo gear and my wish list. Then I remembered that I don't celebrate Christmas and this time of year is not the greatest for acquiring new gear because everything is at retail. Well, until Boxing Day (here in Canada: you Yanks already had your Black Friday and Cyber Monday!). On the other hand, this is a significant time, the ending of a year and in this case of a decade. Upon further reflection, I thought I'd talk about something entirely different.

Our lives are not homogeneous. Every day, every month, every year brings new experiences and new challenges (funny how we humans have broke time down into pieces relating to the movement of celestial bodies. Think about it: a day is one rotation of the Earth around its axis. A month, one trip of the moon around the Earth. A year, one lap around the sun). 2010 was not a good year for me. Oh, it had its moments: watching my grandkids becoming little, middle and bigger human beings, learning new stuff and pushing myself out of my comfort zone photographically, meeting a bunch of new people and getting to know some of them better, sharing my experience and knowledge with more and more people (I really was born to teach...). But there were dark moments too. The death of my father in June, the seemingly endless task of caring for my aging and sometimes ill mother, the rut I've dug myself into, living up here in Haliburton and travelling weekly to Toronto.

So what do I want for 2011? First, no more medical bad news. Not only for myself, but also for my family and my friends, some of whom have faced or are facing some challenges right now. Prosperity for those around me (OK, for me too. I'm turning 65 this year and have to find a way to make the next 30 years comfortable ones). Opportunities to share with many people. Not only my knowledge, although I'm searching for ways to teach more things to more people, but also my accomplishments: by publishing another book, by gaining some recognition of my efforts with this blog and other media, and by earning the respect of my peers.

In 2011 I would like to make a dozen excellent pictures and actually sell some. I would like to write at least a couple of articles that are published by someone other than myself. I'd like to get a good start at writing that elusive novel. I want to try my hand at painting (with brushes, not digitally) and play some music that stirs someone else's soul, or maybe just mine. I have some other personal goals that I'd rather not write down here but if you know me, you can probably guess. I want to accomplish something in this, my 65th year. I realize that these things aren't just going to come my way, I have to be proactive, to make them happen. I need to find the energy and the will to make it so.

There. I've shared more than I should. Why? It's cathartic, it sets me on the path, people are going to ask me, "so, what did you do today to achieve these things?", and maybe it will make YOU think about what YOU want for yourself in 2011.

As an aside: what do you see yourself doing at 11 minutes and 11 seconds after 11am on November the 11th, 2011? 11:11:11 on 11/11/11?

What I want for Christmas

OK, well a new car, a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, a Wacom Intuos4 medium sized tablet, one of those fancy neutral density filters I talked about last time, planning a trip to somewhere where I can focus on my photography: Ireland/Scotland is pretty high on my list, New Zealand and Africa are probably out of reach, but in a pinch, Newfoundland again would be great. Who wants to go with me?

Shall we look at some pictures?

I know a lot of people who read my blog are actually not photographers, are actually not interested in the technical details and challenges. But there are some: and I'm going to try to become more consistent in my descriptions. So let me start now.

I was driving along Highway 118 on the way back here from Toronto. Normally I come up the other way (highway 48/35) but there were two reasons I chose the 400/118 route yesterday: I happened to be in the West end of Toronto and it's easier (and I got to stop at Bass Pro where I picked up a couple of winter weight shirts and stuff), and because I had heard that they got quite a bit of snow in the Bracebridge area, much more than we got here, and I wanted to see for myself. As I drove along, I saw mixed sun and cloud, and indeed, there was dramatically more snow there than here! Say 20cm vs. 5cm.

The phrase that kept repeating in my head was "It's All About the Light". Also, I was mindful of the topic of my last Blog, not to be lazy and let opportunities slip by. I stopped at least a dozen times in that 50km stretch, and sometimes made a u-turn to return to a scene I had just driven past. One of those was this house:

The sun broke through and created this idyllic scene, a postcard view of a pretty little house in fluffy white snow. I framed the house between the two evergreen trees and captured enough foreground to give the photo some depth. I shot 5 exposures, all at f/9, ISO 400. The lens was my Nikon 24-120 VR. Why f/9 and not f/8? Why that lens? Well I had just come from my monthly ID photo shoot, and that was what was on the camera and how it happened to be set! I did think about it: the sweet spot on that lens is between f/8 and f/11, I knew I was in there. I did reset from jpeg-fine back to RAW (I shoot the ID's in jpeg, it makes the workflow MUCH faster and colour balance is OK with the flash and white ceiling. I switched back to RAW before putting the camera away so I wouldn't forget!). I missed the fact that the ISO was 400, I should have taken it down to 200 but 400 isn't bad. Focal length was at 34mm, and the 5 exposures ranged between 1/1000 sec. and 1/60 sec. VR was on, I was handheld. I spot-metered on the house because I knew that the white snow would throw the meter off if I used matrix metering. The nominal exposure was 1/250 sec and the other 4 shots bracketed this setting. Why did I shoot 5 shots? Because I intended to make an HDR image. The camera was in high-speed mode so that all 5 exposures could take place before the clouds could move significantly.

When I opened the image in Lightroom, I marked the 5 images with a single star, indicating that they were earmarked for HDR treatment. When I came back to them, I selected "merge to HDR-pro in Photoshop CS5". I started with the "Photorealistic" preset and tweaked the image until the detail and the noise levels balanced. I did increase the radius and strength settings somewhat, allowing a bit of white glow around the trees. Next I copied the layer and applied the Topaz Adjust 4 plug-in, cycling through the presets until I found one I liked for this image: I think it was "portrait drama". Working from this starting point, I increased saturation and clarity, kept the detail level fairly high and decided not to reduce the saturation at the bottom because the cool blue hue of the snow complemented the house colour. After saving the image, I returned to Lightroom, cropped and straightened it a bit* (I had the top of the trees in the image, but opted to crop them out because the focus is on the house, and by cropping top and bottom, I was able to maximize the size of the house in the image and reduce the amount of eye-catching bright sky), and then painted the cloud at upper right with the adjustment brush and reduced its saturation (it was really yellow!). Finally I tweaked the clarity and sharpness up a tad, added some noise reduction, and a soft post-crop vignette to keep the focus in the middle of the image.

* hi, it's Monday the 6th. I reloaded the picture because it didn't look straight to me. Interestingly, if you make the window frames on the right side of the building level, the picture doesn't look right. I used the dormer window on the left and it looks better.

If I were to submit this image to a club competition (I probably will), the judges will probably score it 8-7-6. One judge will like the crispness and depth of the image. One will say that the saturation is too high and the third one will say that it's overprocessed as an HDR and that the cloud is too yellow and too bad about the tops of the trees. Too bad. "I" like it, it's what I had intended. We'll see if I'm right in a few weeks!

So I kind of got carried away describing the process here. My goal was to communicate the thinking that went into making this image. Pretty well everything was pre-planned from composition to exposure. I'm putting into practice something I learned from Rob Stimpson and from reading Moose Peterson's book: accidents "don't" happen. You need to plan your shots. Was it as onerous and difficult as it seems? Not at all. Most of the thought and production processes were automatic for me. You have to know your camera and your software.

Here's another image from the same day, in fact it was taken 5 minutes after the house shot, just around the corner. But I had been back and forth to this spot 3 times, waiting for the light to be right!

This is a tighter crop. The original shot was a vertical one, with the entire tree on the right visible. I originally processed it that way but then I didn't like the complex sky and wanted to see what it would look like if I cropped it this way. I wanted more depth of field so I went up to f/11 and here I did bring the ISO down to 200. When I saw that yellow sign, I really wanted to make a cartoony HDR out of it. I used Photomatix for this one because you can get more extreme effects, and Topaz to hype it up. As I said, I waited for the light. I wanted the hill in front of me to be sunlit. Toning the image made the shadow areas blue which contrasted nicely with the yellow, and I punched up the blacks. 5 rapid exposures again, from 1/1600 to 1/100 sec. By the way, the original unedited inmage looks pretty good too, I just liked the extreme and whimsical composition here. Check them out side-by-side in my December Smugmug gallery.

A third image from yesterday is this one of a slough off Highway 118 that I've shot in the summer. Look at the great shadows and textures created by the setting sun, especially on the stream bed! This was shot 15 minutes later, most of which was spent waiting for the sun! I didn't really get the sky I wanted, but I did my best using HDR to bring out whatever was there. Again the HDR is somewhat extreme, enhanced in Topaz, but what can I say, I love the effect! The only other negative? The snow in the foreground is out of focus. I would have cropped it out except it adds so much depth to the image. Again, the original image is pretty good on its own (you can see them side-by-side in my December Smugmug Gallery). 5-shot HDR, 1/1250 through 1/80 second at f/10, ISO 200. I set the exposure compensation bias down 2/3 stop for this image because I was shooting into the sun and wanted to underexpose a little. This one was done with the Nikon 12-24mm super wide angle, set at its widest.

Why did I choose this spot? Because it's all about the light. Interesting that all 3 shots were made late in the afternoon with the sun on the way down. I shot all afternoon and didn't keep anything else!


Let's see what kind of reaction I get to challenges like this. If you like it, if I get some responses, I'll do it again. Don't be shy, take up the gauntlet!

Power Lines.

I hate power lines. I try to avoid them in my images. When I get one in a shot, well CS5 and the content-aware healing brush make short work of them. But what if we made power lines the SUBJECT of a shot?

Here's one. Now it's your turn. Send me your images of power lines. Give me permission to publish the best one or ones I receive. Come on,

Friday, December 03, 2010

Opportunity knocks...

Opportunity knocked but I didn't answer the door.

Yesterday, I drove into Minden. The sun momentarily broke out and lit the far slopes in bright contrast to the darker nearby roadside. "What great light", I thought, but I didn't stop. Then the sun lit the nearby trees, coated in freshly fallen snow, and I thought, "I really should shoot this" but I didn't. I had a shot in mind, of the Gull River just North of Minden where I figured the trees would be snow covered, the water mirror calm, and some detail in the sky. I skipped the opportunities I just described to you and pushed on, to get to where I wanted to shoot before losing the light. I got there: and nothing. The snow hadn't stuck to the trees I was picturing, the water wasn't calm, and the clouds had moved in making the light boringly flat. I struck out.

Two parables come to mind: remember the one with the billy goats where the next one would be the best one? And an expression I heard again a couple of weeks ago that sticks in my mind: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans". SEIZE THE MOMENT. Shoot it NOW. Don't wait for a better shot later.

I make it a rule never to post to the blog without a picture or two. I found that hard to do this week because, frankly, I haven't gone out shooting, I've been running around dealing with business and personal matters. Still, I looked out the window at the first snow shower of the season and decided to brave the weather, find something extraordinary to shoot, and go out for a few shots. It's challenging to shoot during bad weather: I protected the camera from the falling snow with a 'storm jacket' that covers all but the front of the lens; only to discover that it didn't take more than a few seconds for the glass to become spattered with rain and snow. I went back inside and got an umbrella, then back out to shoot after cleaning the lens.

All to no avail. The idea was there but the execution was not. How do you shoot in a snowstorm? A short exposure gives you ugly grey splotches -- falling snowflakes frozen in time. A long exposure makes them disappear, but then the overall contrast and sharpness is reduced and the picture becomes mundane. I got wet, my camera got wet, I spent an hour out in the snowstorm and got nothing. Nada. I took one shot back and did some extraordinary photoshop work on it, then I hated it and won't show it to you.

Anyway, here are two pictures I took, both on Wednesday during the snow shower. Lazy shots. Done from inside my house shooting out the open door.

Both of these images speak to me. They reflect what it really looked and felt like during the snow shower. In both cases, slow shutter speed (1/3 sec and 1/5 sec) brought out some motion and texture in the falling snow. Longer exposures would have been muddy, shorter ones covered with ugly spots.

I might enter the second shot in a club competition, but just to prove a point. Remember the starry night shot of the Red Umbrella Inn a couple of weeks ago? I entered that one and accurately predicted my score. It scored 6-9-6 from the 3 judges. "Shadows were too dark", said one. "Some of the highlights were blown out", said another. A third one got what I was trying to capture -- the inn floating in a sea of stars on a crystal night, the detail in the trees and of the building. Blown out highlights. Building lights and a million stars. If I enter the above picture, I can just hear the comments: "the branches in the foreground are out of focus" and "highlights are blown out". Indeed. ON PURPOSE. It's a high key picture. Let's see if I'm right!
On to some technical tips.
Exif Data

Colour me impressed. Do you have any idea how much information is saved with your digital images by your camera? It reinforces the concept that this isn’t just a camera it’s a powerful computer.

I wanted to know how many shutter actuations I had on my D300. That information isn’t normally available, so I Googled it and found that there were several exif readers out there that can provide that data. I picked one and installed it.

For what it’s worth, I chose PhotoME exifreader, a free program that works on PC (not Mac. Google it, you’ll find similar programs for the Mac). Here’s the link:

How does it work? Download and install it (I didn’t choose the Beta version available, just the current version 0.79). Run it. Open an uploaded picture (they say it works better on a JPEG than on a RAW file, but I tried both and it works, but read the note below). An incredible amount of information is visible! I didn’t count them, but I’m going to guess that about 250 fields – 250 different bits of information – are available with each picture. Scroll down and read the wondrous info you now have on your images and on your camera.

Note: if the uploaded picture was imported into Lightroom and edited, then re-saved, you lose some of this info. So use an unedited image when you do this. There’s more information with the RAW file, but it’s all Greek! I didn’t analyse the differences.

So I found out that at the time I took that test image this morning, I had 35,468 shutter actuations on my D300. Here’s a quick upload of the results of reading two files, an NEF and a JPG:

Food for thought: that’s equivalent to almost 1000 36-exposure rolls of film. Now if I had been shooting 35mm slides, what did a roll cost, with processing? Say $10? (I’m probably off, but I don’t remember), that’s $10,000 worth of film alone! Wow!

Cleaning your sensor

I haven’t talked about this in a long time. I won’t dwell on it: when Ron and I were heading up to Wawa last month, we saw some ugly spots on our images and sat in a restaurant at breakfast one morning and cleaned our sensors. In my case, I wasn’t too happy with the results, but accepted it. There were still spots which I had to clone out on critical images.

It’s a tedious and painstaking process but you have to do it. It’s also a good idea to do it at home, with no time pressure, so that you know how to do it when you’re in the field with a minimum of effort and maximum effect.

Buy a sensor cleaning kit. There are lots of them out there – I bought my kit from several years ago (by the way, the owner of Copper Hill is into macro photography, check out their website and click “about us” to see some great images of butterflies and the like). Anyway, you can buy kits in stores like Henry’s now if you want.

They also tell you not to blow canned air into your camera, although I’m not sure why, as long as you blow some into the open air first to get rid of the traces of Freon or whatever propellant they use. Certainly if you don’t understand why you shouldn’t blow with your mouth into the camera, you should carefully pack the camera and all related equipment up and return it to the store or put it up for sale because you’re too stupid to own camera equipment (LOL. That comes from an old computer help desk joke relating to a call they received about a computer not working. Seems the user couldn’t get it to work, and after some time the CSR found out that the reason was that there was a power failure at the user’s house…).

DISCLAIMER: The manufacturers all say “DON’T TOUCH YOUR SENSOR”, you can damage it irreparably, etc. So I’m posting this topic for information only. If you do something to your camera IT’S YOUR FAULT, NOT MY FAULT, I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO IT.

There are a couple of spots and a small streak in the lower left corner on my sensor which I can’t seem to budge. They’re minor, and I have to accept them, until such time as I can spare my camera for the time (and the charge, of course) for Nikon to clean it at the factory. I think they want about $100 and 2 weeks to do it.

It makes sense to keep your camera, lenses and other gear clean too. I’m somewhat guilty of not doing a lot to keep mine clean and I expect I’ll have to pay for that down the road. If my gear gets wet, I pat it dry and use Windex on the lens (well on the UV filter). So far I haven’t been in any particularly bad locations (desert, beach, African jungle…) so…

While I’m at it, I’d like to mention 2 other products.

I recently bought a Hoodman Loupe for viewing my LCD on the camera under magnification. It serves two purposes: one is, in those critical focus situations where looking through the viewfinder doesn’t do it for you, you can switch to LiveView (Canon has something similar, I think) and preview what the camera sees on the LCD. You can blow it up, look at it closer with the Loupe and do that fine tuning before actually firing the shutter. The second thing is, you can “chimp”. Look at a picture after you took it and blow it up to make sure you got it in focus, and go “ooh. Ooh. Ooh”, just like a chimp. That’s where the word came from! And show your shooting buddy what you got. There’s a third purpose: walking around with a loupe around your neck you look like a pro. Well really like a geek, but who’s judging?.

Seriously, the big advantage I find is that you can block the light from your LCD and still see it in a bright environment. By the way, don’t forget that your LCD, as big and bright as it is, does not have ANYWHERE NEAR the resolution or accuracy of your finished image.

The second thing I bought recently was a high speed card reader. My old one didn’t cut it. I bought mine (and the Hoodman) from B&H Photo (use the link at right to get me my Brownie Points!), for about $12. Worth it. My desktop has a built-in card reader but the laptop doesn’t, you either have to plug the camera or a card reader into a USB port. Today’s models are MUCH faster than the older USB 1.1 versions.

Time marches on. Things to do, people to see, places to go. Catch you later!