Monday, August 20, 2012

The best laid plans...

Sometimes stuff doesn't work out. Nothing dramatic, but I didn't get to shoot the pictures I was planning on this weekend.

I was booked to go to the "Tough Mudders" event at Mount St. Louis/Moonstone, as a spectator, not a participant! 12 miles of military style obstacle courses, imagine the photo ops! But I must have pulled a muscle at the motorcycle course last week because I really didn't feel that much up to going. Then to top it off, they sent us an email saying that there was no parking on site, they had a designated parking area and shuttle busses: almost 1 hour away from the venue! So that would have meant 5-6 hours of travel to get there and back, and I passed. I saw some pictures that someone else took and I was envious, but that was too much travel for me for a one-day event.

So on Saturday, I got on my bike and rode into Minden. While I was there, I saw some offroad Jeeps all covered in mud and thought, "hmmm. Jeeps crashing through puddles, climbing over rocks..." and I went off in search of their staging area. Here's a shot I took there:

HDR processed in Photomatix Pro 4. I also edited out a trailer in the background with Content-Aware Fill in CS6. 
Here's a closer shot of his tire:

This picture sits next to the word "Grungy" in the dictionary! 
In talking to the organizers, I found out that the only way I was going to see these guys doing their thing was if I went into the bush with them. Not gonna happen. Then someone told me that on Sunday, there was a venue visible from the road: all I had to do was to follow a road called "Black River Road", then turn off onto the "Hinden Forest Access Trail" to where there was a venue they were using to do rock climbing with their Jeeps. Cool.

Some Jeeps returning to the campground 

You've got to love what it says on this guy's windshield! 
Later that day...
I took off on the bike to look for other photo ops (this was still Saturday) and ended up 'way down a road from Minden to Bob's Lake. There was an old cabin there that looked really picturesque and I stopped for a while to shoot some pictures. Now when you think "gritty old cabin in the woods", the letters "HDR" come to mind. I worked the scene for quite a while, but just didn't come up with anything extraordinary. However when I got home, I took one image into HDR Efex Pro and played with it. Then I tried the Oil Paint Filter in CS6 and:

Very interesting how the oil paint filter added texture to the old building. 
I looked at this image blown up and found some really interesting extracts: here's one

There were actually a number of interesting areas to explore. HDR and Oil Paint filter. Cool. 
On Sunday, I went off in search of that rock climbing venue. Suffice it to say that after 35 km of driving (in the car, I wanted to bring more stuff than I could carry on the bike), here's where the "it didn't work out" kicks in. When I ran out of road I was comfortable with — getting momentarily stuck in the sand after clumping over a rock was my first clue — I gave up and turned around. Never did find them. I was halfway to Bracebridge, so I continued on in search of photo ops. How shall I put this: there are no rapids in Housey's Rapids. Cooper's Falls doesn't have a waterfall. OK actually it does, but you can't get near it because it's on private property. It started pouring rain on Monck's Road, and didn't stop until I got to Minden. Kind of a disappointing day, photo-wise but I had fun exploring anyway!

Here are a couple of pictures from the previous weekend.

I happened on an equestrian competition. Pretty boring: just riding around in a circle at a walk, sometimes a trot (a dressage show, I'm told). Anyway a couple of good horse pictures. 
Remember my macro shots?

You have to admit it takes nerve to shoot a wasp from 1" away... 

Here's a little flower. Love that oil paint filter! 

Now a challenge!
On Saturday I passed by this garage sale where the daughter dressed up in something called a "Morph Suit" and stood out on the roadside trying to attract potential buyers. I got her to do a dance for me.

This would make a cool composite, wouldn't it? I was trying to imagine it on a variety of backgrounds. But no particular one came to mind. So, dear reader, what about you? Ready to show off your creativity? There's a 680x1024 pixel image here: Go ahead and download it (I relinquish copyright) and go nuts. Please email it back to me at and show me what you can do! I'll publish a selection of them here.

This kind of challenge goes on at the new TIF Forum.
TIF is the place for creative minds to share photos, grow in skill, and learn new skills. We are a community of Photographers, Graphic Designers, Illustrators, Web Designers and other Creative Minds with skill levels from hobbyist to professional! 
Please no nudity, bad language or discussions regarding politics or religion. Please keep our community safe and enjoyable!
It's a newly created forum which (as I write this) has about 50 members. It's still a work in progress, but eventually it promises to be a resource where people can share images and other contributions, where there will be a variety of experts available to answer any question or address any problems you might want to bring up. It's totally free, but you have to register to participate (to avoid spammers). Your name and logon information will never be shared with anyone. Go here: Get in on the ground floor!

See you next time!

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Still Learning!

I haven't found my niche yet. By now you'd think I would have but almost every week I find myself experimenting with a new technique or style and in a way, that's a good thing.

I thought I found it half a year ago. Landscapes, seascapes, big skies, HDR's... but if you look back at this blog over the past several weeks, you won't find a single landscape there. Well except for an 'oil painting' of a boat on the Trent-Severn canal but that was more about the technique than the subject. Lots of black background flowers but how many of those can you do?

A common thread that winds through my images over time is some action. Whitewater kayaking, motorcycles, bicycles, runners. I still haven't tired of the Minden Wildwater Preserve, shooting kayakers on the river. I've been up here almost 5 years and I've lost track of the number of times I've gone over there. Same with other action events, whenever there is one, I'm motivated to get out and shoot. Last week it was a running race, yesterday a bicycle event...

But every time I get a new piece of equipment or software, I have to experiment with it to see what  I can achieve, and to reach a certain skill level with it. Macro, for instance. It's amazing what images exist in the small world and I'll keep trying to capture some. Hopefully I'll stop shooting water droplets on leaves, though I'm drawn to them!

I think I can define one characteristic of my pictures: I like making bold statements. Subtlety is not my thing. An image needs a clearly defined subject, one that stands out because of colour, brightness, texture... does that make any sense? Sometimes that results in an over-processed look as opposed to the photorealism that I've strived for in the past. I haven't given up experimenting yet!

Whenever I'm out shooting pictures, though, when I look through the viewfinder, one thought is almost always in the back of my mind: "would this make a large format art print"? That's where I'd like to be. I have the photographic and post-processing skills, not the mechanics of printing, though; I don't really want to get into that so I'll have someone do it for me.

When you look through my pictures, I hope that's what you see: "this would make a wonderful print"!

Learning from the pro's

I may have said this before, but if I did, it's worth repeating. With the Olympics on for the past couple of weeks, I've been watching more than my usual share of TV. The photographers and videographers (not just at the Games: pay careful attention to commercials! And movies. And Sitcoms.) get paid big bucks to do what they do and sometimes they are VERY good. True, they have unlimited budgets (especially the commercials) but next time you're in front of the tube, pay attention to the composition, to the lighting! Most of it is outstanding.

The NAPP forums are essentially dead.

For the past couple of years, I've hung out on the forums at the NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals) site. It was a great place to get answers to photography or post-processing questions, see the work of others, respond to challenges, meet new friends. It appears that either their business plan has changed, or a fox got into their henhouse because suddenly there were some very heavy-handed actions by both moderators and NAPP staffers (well one, anyway). Imagine a site, focused on Photography and Photoshop training, where members are not allowed to post pictures. Peoples' work were called 'snapshots' in a derogatory fashion. Complaints were dealt with by deleting posts and by banning members from posting.

This should in now way take away from the excellent quality of education and publications fostered by NAPP and Kelby Training. It was with a heavy heart that I and a substantial number of other members tendered our resignations, both on the forums and as NAPP members. A new group of talented photographers and graphics people, now numbering close to 60, has popped up and a new forum is being set up as I write this. For now, access is by invitation only but if you drop me a note, I'll submit your contact info to the group.

Now on to this week's pictures.

A few days ago, while sitting at the computer, a bird hit my picture window with a thump. That happens from time to time. I got up and looked out and there on the deck was what I think is a juvenile purple finch. It had knocked itself out cold! I picked it up gently and put it on the slate table of my gazebo to recover. It sat there looking at me. Of course the next thought in my mind was, "where's my camera?" I grabbed it and it had the wide angle lens mounted, so I took a quick shot, then went in to change to the bellows. I was thinking, "when would I get another opportunity to shoot a living bird from 1" away"? Unfortunately, there wasn't enough light to get a good image. By the time I got the flash out and mounted, the bird flew away. But I did get this first shot with the wide angle:

Sharpened in Photoshop CS6 (hi-pass), some selective clarity adjustment in Lightroom and then toned with Topaz Adjust. 
I got to thinking about the same spot for other songbird portraits. (an aside: as I sit here looking out, there are a dozen songbirds on my bird feeder and 3 or 4 others sitting waiting their turn on the guy wires from my gazebo. I'd take a picture but as soon as I open the door, they'll be gone. I think the trick is the choice of black sunflower seeds in the feeder — it works like a magnet!)

The roof over the table is an ideal holder for a reflector. So this was the basic setup.

For you tekkie types: here's where the rule about closer=softer doesn't work. In order to illuminate the reflector more evenly, the flash has to be further away from it. To add some light fill, I also added a rolled-up white towel  on the table to the right. The SB-600 was driven in "commander mode" by the pop-up flash on the camera, which was actually inside my house, hidden somewhat by the magnetic screen door I described a couple of weeks ago.
Now who knew that songbirds had such quick reactions?  A bird was standing on the table (attracted by some of those black sunflower seeds, of course!) When I fired the flash, the bird jumped! It was almost impossible to get a shot of a bird just standing there!

Like I said, this American Goldfinch was just standing there until I fired the flash! Toned with HDR Efex 2 and Topaz. This was shot with the 200mm and was cropped from about half of the frame. 
Here's another one:

This is another one of those purple finches (the adult males are coloured, females and juveniles are not. I think that's what it is, but the bird book shows the bill as lighter coloured. 
Eventually, an hour or two later, the birds became accustomed to the flash and didn't fly away when I fired it.

Bird portrait. The fuzzy blob off to the left is another bird. I used the Iris Blur filter in Photoshop CS6 to isolate the subject. You can see that the rolled up towel reflector off to the right was actually effective. 
Let me add one more picture before I go. I have some others which I'll save for next time. Yesterday I came across this old chair next to a wall of peeling paint and it literally screamed, "HDR Me!" The only thing missing was a bearded little old man puffing on a pipe.

Until next time!

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

A productive morning

I went out to shoot some pictures this morning. When I got home, I looked at my watch and couldn't believe that it was only 12:05. It's amazing what you can get done if you get up early. It was raining when I got up and I wasn't going to go anywhere. Then I checked in with Intellicast on my iPad and saw that the rain was about to end, so out I went! By the way, If you don't know about Intellicast, go to their website here and scroll down to the interactive weather map at the bottom. Click it, go full-screen, zoom in on your location, then (assuming there's some weather around where you are), press "Play". Amazing. And it's available free for the iPad.

Anyway, on with the story. Yesterday afternoon, I was fooling around with my macro setup. There was this obstinate dandelion puffball on my lawn, backlit by the sunset. I mounted the bellows, pulled the offending weed and set it up on a table. Here's the result:

That's one seed from the puffball. OK, two of them. Focusing is such a difficult issue at these magnifications!  

This morning, there was a running race in Minden. I decided to check it out and see if I could get some pictures (you didn't think I was considering running, did you? Shame). The bellows was still mounted on the camera, Intellicast said the rain was just ending, there were water droplets hanging on the pine trees... I had already put the tripod away, so I thought, "can I shoot handheld"? Bottom line is, I needed some help with the shutter speed and I have this thing called a flash...

Did you know that pine needles have these rows of white dots on them? Neither did I. You can click on the picture to enlarge it if you want to look closer. I think this was at f/11 but I can't see it in the Exif data with the bellows on: it says f/0.0.  
Anyway, I went to the race in Minden and got a surprising number of 'keeper' pictures. Here are a few — it's hard to choose, I got so many!

You can't see the legs for the forest. I mean, um... 

Pretty sure that wave was for me. She wanted her picture taken. This was just before the start of the 10k. 

I love how this turned out. Truth? I wanted to shoot some blurred motion shots and was trying to figure out what shutter speed would work best. This girl was warming up with a little sprint, so I shot two shots and !Eureka!. This is 1/15 sec at f./20, ISO 100, 12mm. I set the camera on shutter speed priority. All I did to the shot in LR was to select the shoes and increase the saturation of the bright colours. 

At the finish, I was shooting faces. I got about 75 great shots with my 70-200mm lens at f/2.8. This was my favourite. I think she wanted to win but didn't: is that  disappointment on her face? From the number, by the way, she ran 5K, not 10.

Had to be father and son. They ran 10k and I think dad was elated that they finished. They actually came in together. 
On the way home, I stopped at the white water. I wanted to put the 400mm lens on the gimbal mount, and try some action shots. I got a few, nothing extraordinary, but I noted that it's much easier to get sharp images when the camera is on a proper mount. Anyway, I got one that I liked:

I've got thousands of freeze-frame kayaker pictures shot at 1/1000 second, but I really like the dynamic of shooting at a low shutter speed sometimes. This is 1/40 second at f/22. 
More to come, as usual. Later...

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Friday, August 03, 2012

A trip down memory lane

I started writing about how my sources of inspiration have changed but I got caught up in thinking about my early forays into photography, so I changed the topic. I still want to talk about inspiration, but bear with me as I take a longish trip down memory lane.

Everyone's photography evolves. Some people don't get beyond capturing events and people as they pass in front of them. I can say that I have been shooting pictures for over 50 years, on and off: and the early days were exactly that. I remember my friend Gary's darkroom, where I first saw the magic of an image appearing on a print in a developer tray under a red safelight. I was hooked. The first image of my own I remember printing was a full frame shot of an Air Canada plane coming in for a landing at Dorval Airport. I think I may still have that print somewhere. It was marvellous: perfectly crisp and in focus, an 8x10 that showed every detail of the airplane. Doubly hooked.

Next came my own darkroom, but it wasn't a real one. Just a temporary setup in a bathroom and to develop the film, I had to take it out of the 35mm can and wind it onto a stainless steel spool and into a light-tight can, working in a black bag. Mostly I shot Plus-X Pan, 125 ASA. There was a slower, finer grain film but I can't dredge up the name: Pan-X? Sometimes I shot Tri-X (ASA 400) and there were some Ilford films (FP4? Does that ring a bell? Google is your friend!).

In all those early years, I don't think I ever took a picture of anything soft. Even the still-life's I shot were of objects on my desk: pens and slide rules and chess pieces and I remember a seashell. I learned lighting with desklamps and bedsheets for diffusers. I had a Metz flash with a battery pack you hung around your shoulder and a Nikkormat FTn camera with a 50mm lens. I was studying mathematics and theoretical physics at McGill University in those days and the word "ART" had no place in my life.

I graduated to colour in the late '60s but I never actually (successfully) processed any colour film or made any colour prints. I shot slide film (Kodachrome 25 and occasionally 64) and any prints were made by going out to a commercial lab where they made an internegative. In 1971, I documented a 3-week trip across the continent in a VW Beetle with, if I recall 80 rolls of Kodachrome. That trip was my early education in landscape photography.

In the mid-70's, I got more serious. A friend (Danny) and I bought the photo lab and equipment from Northern Electric (Nortel) and rented the facility and turned it into a studio. It had the best of the best: all stainless steel darkrooms, 20' ceilings, lots of lights and cameras like Hasselblads and and  Kodak 8x10 with an Ektagraphic lens on a crank-up antique wooden stand (wish I still had that!) and tons of other stuff. My favourite working camera was a Plaubel 4x5, and my back still hurts thinking about all the time under a black hood with a loupe trying to focus an upside-down image on a ground glass screen. I learned something about studio lighting there, but mostly we shot tabletop shots of hard stuff: electronics, and jewellery and once, a food series for a restaurant chain that resulted in some 16x20 transparencies in their locations. I did some portraits of my daughter, and I remember a series with a male model for an Italian custom suit maker.

We sold that studio and I lost interest in photography other than documenting my kids and the occasional trip. Life, and my work, had a way of getting in the way. Skip forward to the '90s and the advent of digital... I'll save that for another essay.

I wrote this because... well I was travelling down that old mental pathway. But the message I'm trying to communicate is that I was into the technical side of photography in those days. As I said earlier, ART did not enter into anything I did: my favourite picture from those days was a velvety black image of that 8x10 camera that showed every detail. And another one of the Hasselblad, if I recall. Everything was from the left side of my brain: I was a physicist, for heaven's sake!

When did art and design enter my life? It was in the early 80's. As Director of a division at Siemens, I was involved in our advertising campaigns and was on the periphery when some very creative people designed some killer full-page colour ads. These were the days when VW did a full page newspaper ad with a small car on an otherwise completely white page and everyone was trying to outdo them creatively. Then along came a young advertising manager who carried a sketchpad with him everywhere and used to make notes with bubble letters and drop shadows, and I was hooked.

I actually gave up my job and started a desktop publishing and graphic design company. That was my first exposure to Photoshop: we actually used version 1.0 on our Macs in 1990 or so.

So finally back to my original topic. The word "inspiration" did not apply to my photography until then. I think "Inspiration" and "Left Brain" can't coexist in the same sentence (well they just did! LOL). Skipping over lots and lots of stuff, I think my first real inspiration came after I joined the Richmond Hill Camera Club and saw some of the work other members presented. I joined the club, by the way, when I bought my D70 and realized I knew nothing about composition. I knew how to take technical pictures...

So here's the thing about inspiration:
Some time ago I came across this video by Dewitt Jones from National Geographic. I've watched it frequently. More recently, Scott Kelby did a workshop called "Crush the Composition" (link) which had more to do with other stuff than composition. It's an hour long but it's compelling and worth watching. Kelby's a great teacher. Two things stood out for me: "Work the Scene", and the concept that SOMETHING made you stop to take a picture. Keep looking for it.

Want to learn about composition?
Turn on your TV. Watch ads. Watch movies. Watch shows. Pay attention to what those OUTSTANDING photographers and videographers are doing.

Lately I've hooked up with a lady who is a trained classical artist. For a while, I looked at art with her but my mind was still in the technical mode. You know: "Rule of Thirds", "Leading Lines", etc. I couldn't understand what she was trying to tell me (and still don't, mostly), but she has definitely influenced my direction now. Sure, I'm still enthralled by technical things — playing with macros shot with a bellows, and waiting for that D800 I crave — and yes, you're going to see some tekkie type pictures here, but my goal is to let my right brain loose. We'll see how that goes.

Here's an effort along those lines. Admittedly I use the technical tools available to me in Photoshop CS6 and some plugins and HDR techniques, but it's the end image, not how you get there, right?

This is cropped from a larger image (below). I shot it at the Trent-Severn Waterway, between Balsam Lake and Mitchell Lake, where I was shooting ospreys. As I passed over the canal, the scene below caught my eye. Then I thought it would make a wonderful 'painting'. 

Here's the full scene. It's an HDR, processed with Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, then brought into CS6, using Topaz Adjust and the oil paint filter to achieve the effect I wanted. The textures in the crop above do it for me!

I said I was shooting Ospreys. I couldn't get close enough — as I approached the nest the adult bird flew off after angrily peeping at me and wouldn't come back until I stepped away. So the best I could do was a long telephoto shot which I cropped and added texture to.

Do you think s/he knew I was there?? 
Yesterday, I dropped off some garbage at the local landfill. They have a HUGE bear problem, caused by the ban on the spring bear hunt imposed some years ago by the politicians. Last year there was a family of black bears — a boar and sow and a couple of cubs: now it's grown. There were at least 3 large bears and 4 cubs there yesterday.

This boar (I think. I wasn't going to get close enough to check its reproductive equipment!) took an interest in me  and headed in my direction. As he got closer, I moved around behind my car and left the door open for quick access. The background in this image is really ugly: it's the dump, of course. I might crop him out and layer him into a different composite at some point. The picture was badly overexposed, by the way: a testament to how much information you can recover when you shoot in RAW. Shot with my 400mm lens and only slightly cropped.

Same bear, MUCH closer, different treatment. I scooted into my car after taking this shot: he was about  20 feet away and coming towards me. Still overexposed, so I could get rid of most of the background.
See you next week. I'm going to take out the bellows and try for some macro shots later, if I can find some time and some inspiration!

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