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,