Sunday, October 28, 2012

The times they are a-changing...

There are two times in the year when the Highlands are not beautiful. At the end of the winter, when the snow melts and the world is painted in shades of muddy brown and grey, and now, after the leaves are down. One can be spoiled by the spectacular colours of autumn and once gone, they leave a sense of regret behind. The four seasons are magnificent, but there's a time between them that's less compelling.

To top it off, it's been raining and cold and grey. More to come: as I write this, the impending arrival of hurricane Sandy, coupled with a large cold front coming from the west, "Frankenstorm", the media has dubbed it. Thankfully we're not directly in the path, but we expect to be battered by it here as well.

The first thing I did was to change the banner at the top of this blog.  I plan to change it again from time to time.  Here's the old one, because I think it's gone, even from older posts.

This was the banner image up to today. The text was overlaid separately.

And here's the new one. 

So it's not a time to venture out with the camera to capture the spectacle of nature. Instead, it's time to throw another log on the fire, creating with senses other than the eyes, tools other than the camera. It's time to sit down with the computer. Photoshop, not photography.

I got to thinking about the images I've made in the past and wondered how much I've changed. I hesitate to say that I've grown, but I have to come to the conclusion that I have: some of my earlier pictures look incredibly amateurish and not up to my present technical or even artistic standards. I started by looking at my early HDR's. I found that I was taken with the extreme fringes of the technique, like many others I contributed to the frequently heard, "I hate HDR's. They're not realistic".

Although that's true, I don't hate all of them. Some are pretty good, but they lack subtlety. They're also one-dimensional in that they were attempts to get the most out of every pixel. Anyway, I looked at an image I shot 2 years ago, at Old Woman Bay on the shore of Lake Superior:

Not horrible, in my view. My goal at the time was to enhance the detail of the cliff face and the sky. 
So I revisited the image, and this time, used Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 to tone it. I did it without looking at the old version:

This time, I wanted to add some character to it, so I used control points to add the light from the setting sun, again I emphasized the cliff face, but now I cropped off the messy foreground and spent some time simplifying the dead tree in front. I varied the saturation from spot to spot and of course framed it with a vignette which I created with Topaz Adjust. This time I zoomed in and fixed some chromatic aberration and reduced the halos that I hadn't noticed two years ago.
Which image do you prefer?

Of course, I still think there's a place for extreme effects. I'll show you that in a minute.

All of that said about the lousy weather and dull scenery, I did go out. I had a purpose in mind. About 25 years ago, I wrote a short story. Now I'm using it as a basis for a more challenging work: an actual novel. Here's a sample, for what it's worth:

As soon as it reared up over the rocks, Henry recognized it for what it was: a large black bear sow. It spotted Henry and for some reason, felt threatened and moved to the attack. Bear were usually docile unless provoked or if you got between them and their cubs, so he wasn’t prepared for its aggressive behavior. He could see the sharp claws and hear them as it scrambled over the rocks, could almost smell its fetid breath as he stared down the gaping mouth, through the sharp teeth. It roared and the sound chilled him to the bone and spurred Henry into action.
He quickly lifted the .32-20 and thumbed back the hammer as he brought the muzzle up. Henry knew that this lightweight gun was much too small against a large bear, but it was all he had. He tried to mount the gun on his shoulder but his pipe was in the way and he couldn’t get his cheek on the stock so he brought it down and fired from the hip. Working the lever quickly, he fired again as the bear attacked with race horse speed. He got off a third shot and with the bear very much alive and ...

Yeah, you're going to have to wait to find out what happened. In the original piece, I wrote these opening paragraphs:

An artist would need only shades of grey, green and brown on his palette to capture the entirety of the November forest. No other colour intrudes upon the senses. The ground is carpeted with the brown colour of dead leaves, interspersed with the occasional spot of green where a hardy fern still displays its life. Here and there, a slate-grey rock pokes up its gloomy head, covered with splotches of dark, almost black moss. Occasionally the moss is bright green, almost fluorescent in its contrast with the rest of the bleak world.
Above stand the trees: their trunks painted almost universally in shades of grey, tinged with green. The evergreens are close to black in colour, sometimes forming a monolithic wall against the dull sky or the brown hill behind. Everywhere are the dormant branches of the brush, like a brown fog wherever you look, partly obscuring whatever’s behind. You can focus your eyes on a branch, or try to see through it. There are gaps where you can see with crystal clarity, but mostly this is an out-of-focus world.
Here and there are bushes where not all the leaves have fallen – a bright yellow/brown that draws the eye. It’s hard to focus elsewhere, difficult to see through them. Or the odd silver birch, a bit of white in an otherwise pastel world.
Today, a gloomy, rainy day, I set out to capture that feeling.

It's not a great picture but read the text. It tells the story. The bear came over the rise on the left...
Just for the record, I'm about 8,000 words into the book. I hope I'm not jinxing it by talking about it. I'm giving myself the winter to finish it. I may publish excerpts here from time to time.


"If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big surprise."

There's always something to shoot. Here's what I found...

I don't care if you think extreme HDR is for the birds. I like it sometimes.  
 Also, I went out on Thursday for a last ride on my bike. I'm giving up motorcycling, the bike is traded for an ATV with a snowplow which, according to the phone call this morning, I'm going to get on Wednesday, weather permitting. Expect pictures...

Here's a farewell picture of my bike.

The naked trees aren't the story, the bike is. A similar selective coloration treatment as in the tractor picture, and vignette like the Lake Superior landscape. 

Since colour isn't the story out there right now, here's a monochrome treatment of the pine woods where I stopped to get the bike picture. This is now the wallpaper on my iPad. 
Be safe in the hurricane, everyone. I'll see you on the other side.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

What's goin' on?

Not much, you?

Fall is drawing to a close here, what leaves are still on the trees have faded to dull gold and browns. Although there are still lots of great photos to be had. Here's one I took of my car on a rainy Sunday, driving into Toronto.

I needed a "car" picture taken this week for the monthly Rally on the TIF site. (log in to view. Just keeping the spammers and riff-raff away from our forum). The rain increased the saturation of the colours and gave the car some texture in this HDR shot.
Speaking of "cars", the parking lot at the Foodmart in Minden looks a little different from its counterpart in urban (or even suburban) Toronto.

Don't see too many of these on the street in the city, do you? I chatted with the owner: he's a Torontonian (well, Richmond Hill-ite) up here moose hunting. Sure makes life a lot easier than we had it back in the 'day', carrying 300 pound moose quarters over our shoulders across a 1 mile portage! Uphill both ways, if I recall. Carlo's also a photographer, with a D90. I gave him a card, hope he gets in touch.  

So that's a Polaris 500 ATV. I think it's reasonably new. I'm still waiting for mine: I exchanged my motorcycle for this guy's bigger, older brother, a Polaris Sportsman 700, vintage 2003, with a snow plow. It's just being mechanically tweaked before we actually exchange the hardware. You can drive these things on all the roads around here except the highway that you see in the picture! He came in the back way, through town. Oh by the way, it's a handheld 3-shot HDR (ya think?) bracket. Selective color with a masked Silver Efex Pro layer. Can't wait to get mine. I bought it just to do HDR pictures of it! OK, and clear the snow, and...

Last weekend, George, a friend of mine from Humber College, visited for the day and we went on a mini-tour. The weather wasn't great, we retreated to here at the computer when the rain started coming down (I didn't mind getting my D600 wet, but George is a wimp about his D800. Just kidding... sort of!). Anyway, I took him to the Minden Wildwater Preserve where we were lucky enough to see a couple of brave fall-weather kayakers practicing their flips and skills in Earl's Hole.

Now if I did this right, here's a video clip I recorded with the D600 the week before, same spot, one of the same paddlers My first or second attempt at shooting video. Looks like something it'll be fun to learn to do. (shooting video, not whitewater kayaking! You think I'm nuts?)

On Saturday, George got a better shot than I did (whine). Here's his picture (with permission)

© George Reichert 2012. Shot with his D800 and 70-200 VR lens 

...and here's my shot

D600, same lens, slightly different POV.  
Shooting at the White Water is fun, I do it a lot. As you may have noticed.

You can't take a bad picture of your kids.

Well yeah, you can but you're more likely to get some good ones. There are a few reasons for that, which I discuss in my basic photography courses:

  • You've shot 6000 pictures of your kids and only a few of other peoples' kids
  • You have an emotional connection with your subject
  • They're no longer intimidated by mom or dad or grandpa with the camera pointed at them and are generally ignoring you
  • They're YOUR kids and by definition the most beautiful, smartest, greatest kids in the world.
The lesson is, if you want to take great shots of other peoples' kids, shoot lots, until they ignore you and pretend they're as wonderful as your own kids. If you want to take great shots of other things (like a cow, for instance), you need to get up close and personal and make a sympatico connection with the animal or the rock or tree. Seriously. 

So last week, my son and his family were up from New York, and we all hung out at my daughter's place in Uxbridge. I got a bunch of shots of the kids playing on the trampoline, and if you're willing to wait for those great facial expressions, you'll get great shots too. Of course they won't be as pretty or handsome as mine...

Leah is 3 

Kelly's 9. Hope I'm still around and able to take her high school graduation pictures! 

Ryan just turned 13. He needs a haircut (heard he finally got one this week!). Trampolines are great, this was right up at the peak! 
I'll leave you this week with the texture of the underside of a fall-reddened burning bush leaf at maximum magnification with my bellows.

Nothing done to it. Right out of the camera. Since I don't have Exif data, I'm guessing it was at f/11 or f/16, 1/200 sec at ISO 400, obliquely lit by my flash, off-camera at upper right. 
My D300 and 12-24 wide angle DX lens are still for sale. I'll put them up on eBay next week if there are no takers. It's a great deal...

Update: I just posted this, then went to look at it so I could come back to edit typos, etc and I noticed that someone from Berlin, Germany was already reading this blog post! How cool is that???

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Monday, October 08, 2012

Did I say I was done?

Yeah, well...

In all the years I've lived up in the Highlands, I've NEVER seen the fall colours as vibrant and ubiquitous as this year. I have so many pictures I want to show you, and I'm so excited about the new D600. So I'll shut up now, and show you some images. These were all shot during what I call "Mini-Tours" of some fall colour sites in the Highlands.

I know you're going to say it's an HDR, and it is, but you would not believe that this was the actual colour of this maple tree.
All the HDR did was to enhance the sky. 
The tree was right opposite Stanhope Airport. Then I turned around and behind me was this scene.

This is another HDR, but I tried to make it realistic.  It was a blustery day, and nobody was flying. 
On Friday, 5 of us drove up to Bancroft. There was a stand of pine trees I had shot last week, and a waterfall...and fabulous scenery along Highway 118.

This was enroute, I think on 118 but it might have been closer to Bancroft, along 28. The detail from the D600 was so high, I thought it took away from the mood of the picture, so I used the oil paint filter in CS6 to soften it. Yes, yes, it's another HDR but I use that to enhance the sky more than anything else. 
Here are some images in that pine forest I mentioned.

Jim and Kathy from the Richmond Hill Camera Club 

My D600. Just showing off that I actually have one. That's my Nikon 70-200 VR f/2.8, the whole thing held rock steady on my ultralight 3-Legged-Thing tripod. Shot with my D300 with the 12-24 lens, which is for sale, if you're interested. See? It takes good pictures!

My favourite picture of the day. Also shot with the D300/12-24 (seriously, it's for sale. email me.) 
On Saturday morning we went out to shoot at dawn. Unfortunately it was rainy, there was no sunrise to shoot, but we stuck it out (lesson: don't give up. An hour later, conditions change and you'll find amazing shots!)

This is the old log chute, a historic site just behind Hall's Lake. A slow shutter speed — but not too slow, so the water patterns would still be there — I was going for the maximum amount of detail so it was shot at ISO 50, f/11 and I combined 3 shots in Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 (yeah, yeah. HDR).
Nearby was the Hawk Lake Marina. We took a bunch of shots there.

Of course it is. Do you have to ask? How else can you balance the sky and rocks into one photo? 
Next, we went to the Minden Wildwater Preserve.

I put the 10-stop Neutral Density filter on the 70-200. This is a 15-second exposure.  
While we were there, we were lucky enough to see some kayakers practicing their tricks, and the super fast autofocusing on the D600, coupled with its excellent metering, gave me a lot of excellent shots! I can't show them all here, but these were my favourites:

This last shot seems to have epitomized the day for us. To me it really says what whitewater kayaking in the fall in Minden is all about.

Shot with the D300 and the 12-24 lens (the combination that's for sale. email me!). I struggled with cropping this to move the kayaker out of the centre, but in the end, I preferred this full frame. It tells the story...
I hope you enjoyed these pictures. I plan to go out again next weekend. If anyone wants to join me, please visit and sign up for a mini-Tour.

PS: If anyone wants to learn more about how to create HDR images, I'm available for tutoring. Contact me to discuss the details. I prefer 1-on-1 sessions, maximum small groups.

PPS: and if you think any of these images deserve a place on your wall, or on your desktop, get in touch. Some of them will make outstanding large art prints.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I'm done shooting fall colours...

... or maybe not! Every year I say the same thing and every year I am overwhelmed by the glory that nature brings us to enjoy and challenges us to capture. I do live in God's Country. It's been 5 years now and this has to be the best one of all.

If you don't like looking at pictures of fall colours, don't read this blog. I have so many to show you, I guess I overdid it! But where do you stop?

I shot this same spot last year, up in the hills behind Minden. This time I added some oil paint effect to make it more abstract because, well, because I can! 
Nature throws lots of stuff at you: some of which you can't capture. In another shot in the same location, there was a rock or stump standing up in a stream in the foreground. I thought it was neat how it looked like a duck, but of course it couldn't be one because it didn't move all the time I was there. It was only when I got home and blew it up to 200% that I discovered it was a large turtle! And a couple of babies.

I never would have been able to figure this out if it wasn't for the D600's amazing resolution.
This was at 100mm, and I had a 400mm with me but who knew? 

The sun selectively caused these autumn ferns to glow! 

I spent the weekend shooting up in Muskoka with Shannon whose hospitality was boundless. In fact, this was Sunday morning's breakfast:

That's Chris at the other end of the table! Shannon and Chris are one of those "healthy" couples (OK, in fairness, I don't know all that much about Chris's convictions, but Shannon is into healthy, organic stuff). Everything on this plate is natural and the pancakes are made from stuff I can't even remember. The green things are sunflower sprouts and the eggs came from her own chickens! It tasted as good as it looks.  By the way, the "Iris Blur" filter in Photoshop CS6 works great.
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Although this is about the colours, it's also about the D600 and about a really cool venue that I (we) are really going to have to revisit.

On the way to Port Sidney, I took Highway 118. It was late in the day, the sun poking out of the broken clouds from time to time. I stopped to capture the amazing light reflecting off this rock face:

It's hard to capture what you actually see. This soft effect makes it look like I remember it. 
Saturday morning, we went to a place called "Screaming Heads", just outside Burk's Falls, north of Huntsville. This is a large rural property (I guess 100 acres) owned by a retired art teacher by the name of Peter Camani (we met him. An unusual individual). There are hundreds of works of art scattered around the property.

One of the screaming heads. I'm talking about the cement sculpture, not Shannon who posed in it to give the picture a sense of scale. This was not among the largest ones. 
The place defies description. You have to visit his website here to get a feel for it. I could post dozens more pictures to show you the giant hand sticking up out of the ground, the dragon on top of the castle-like house... go to his website, or better, visit Screaming Heads yourself!

Wolves howling at the moon., amid other strange constructs, and surrounded by the colours of fall. 
There was also a large garden where you first drive in, dominated by a sea of sunflowers.

Shannon shooting sunflowers. I showed her how to use "commander mode" to remotely fire an off-camera flash. By the way, it was raining pretty well the whole time we were there. Brand new D600 in the rain... 
Speaking of the D600, I am blown away by the sharpness of the images it produces. At times, I'm shooting with my older Nikon 24-120 f/3.5-5.6 VR lens (not one of the new f/4 models), which is reported to be one of their worst lenses ever. Guess what?

Sunflowers in the rain 

This is a 100% crop out of the above image. Nothing particularly done to it in the computer: it was this sharp coming out of the camera! Click here to see a bigger version of this image.
Anyway, I guess I'm getting carried away. We shot a bunch of other stuff, including a fireworks display in the rain:

Those red spots are water drops on the lens. It's hard not to get them when you point the lens up in the rain! Look at the happy face in the upper right corner! I have NO IDEA how they did this, but that's what one of the final fireworks bursts looked like. This is a composite, by the way, of 7 images. f/16, ISO 100, shutter held open for a couple of bursts, if you want to try it.
On Sunday we shot a couple more spots.

A misty morning lake. 

Slo-mo at a dam in Port Sidney. 1/6 second at f/22. I couldn't do a really long exposure because Shannon had my big ND filter, but this showed some texture in the water. 
One final shot (enough, right? Amazing weekend!). We ran into Russ from Barrie and his Golden Retriever, Cleo. I took a bunch of shots while Russ was fishing, and oil painted this one of Cleo. I'm waiting for him to email me so I can send him the picture:

Cleo's 11 years old and your usual friendly Golden. She wanted to come up and cuddle and be petted, wet fur and all! Great dog! Click here to see a detailed view of the same image. 
OK, I'm done for today. Phew! More fall colours to come next weekend: I can't resist!

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