Monday, November 26, 2012

Setting the mood

Photo ops are all around me (us). Although it can be argued that this isn't the most photogenic time of year (snow is finally sticking to the ground as I write this – YAY! But not enough to plow with my new ATV...) but up to today, just shades of grey and brown prevailed. The thing is, though, you also have to be in the mood and I'm not.

November is almost over and I have only about 300 shutter activations. I didn't go anywhere, but it should have been at least 5x that many. I've just been distracted by business and financial challenges. Without going into a lot of detail, anyone with an online business, who sees a change in their sales pattern, should go check what's going on. Turns out a software glitch at my shopping cart supplier prevented any but existing customers from placing orders and I was essentially down for several weeks before I caught it. There's a lesson here, folks: if something is different, find out why.

As I alluded earlier, I've been spending some time writing. My book is a little stalled (I go to bed dreaming about plot variations but haven't tied into one yet!). Anyone who thinks writing fiction is easy is dead wrong. And you can't start a book with, "It was a dark and stormy night...".

I've also been working on a companion photography guide to the Fall Colours eBook I put out a couple of months ago. "Winter Wonderland" is almost finished, I should be able to get it out this week. Watch for it: about 70 iPad-sized pages on how to take better winter pictures. It's actually written: but I've decided, at Jason Anderson's suggestion, to use Adobe InDesign to publish it. Since I'm an old (very, very old!) Quark Express guy, and there's an historical connection between the programs, the learning curve is somewhat shorter than it normally would be. Learning as I go, though. Trying to figure out how to make hyperlinks show up right now!

Almost a horror story

It could have been. Imagine losing ALL your photo archives. One of my two 2Tb external drives failed. Fortunately it did so 'slowly', so I was able to retrieve everything, but there were some scary moments. I have two 2Tb (and one 1Tb) Western Digital "My Book" external drives. I chose them because (1) I'm a cheap bastard and they were the most economical, and (2) I preferred drives with separate power sources (AC power as opposed to USB power) under the impression that they would be more reliable.

When I did my monthly SyncToy syncing between the drives (the 1Tb is full and retired), there were some signs that everything was not perfect. The "L" drive, the one I kept offsite (more on that in a minute) would sometimes not show up on the computer. I was able to get it back by unplugging and reconnecting the power cord. Hmmm. To make a long story short, I decided not to rely on it and I brought it back to Costco where I had bought it last April.

I know that because, even though I didn't have the bill, they had a record of my purchase and took it back for full credit, no questions asked. IMHO, Costco is a great place to do business. After some discussion with the tech guy at Costco, I decided to change to the WD "Passport" drive which was a few bucks more, but he told me, more rugged. I STILL need to buy a third one, though. Let's see what happens on Boxing Day, and I'd like a 3Tb unit since my 2Tb's are about 65% full.

So one leg of my backup strategy will be changed. Since I don't have a separate place to keep a copy (I work at home, only one physical location), I've kept the "L" drive in a padded bag under the seat of my car. Everyone knows not to subject a hard drive to vibration or movement while it's in operation, but I've come to the realization that it should be babied even when it's not plugged in. So my "L" drive is now going to my mother's apartment in Toronto. I'll continue to mirror the drives once a month, and I also keep copies of my uploaded images and Lightroom catalogues on the internal drive in the computer. And on the laptop.

The message here? If you don't have a well-thought-out and properly implemented backup strategy, you need to. What better time to put it in place than right now?

Early Adoption... good or bad?

Over time, I've avoided being an early adopter of either new hardware or software. Let other people find out about glitches and shortcomings. But you get sucked in...

I've "Early Adopted" three things in the past few months:

  • Lightroom 4. Almost a disaster. It worked sluggishly, AdobĂȘ (I use an accented 'e' when I'm saying mean things about them) didn't acknowledge the problem for a long time and still haven't, although they've fixed it. 
  • Photoshop CS6. Flawless. It did all the things that CS5 did and then some. There's a learning curve especially on the new stuff, but unless you're doing leading edge stuff, you can always do it the old way. My favourite feature? The oil paint filter.
  • Nikon D600. I hope I don't jinx things by speaking too soon, but this was a great move. Yes, there were issues early when AdobĂ© didn't support it in Lightroom or Camera Raw, but versions 4.2, and especially the 4.3 Release Candidate have addressed that. There are so many outstanding features, but the fact that I can bring up a 100% crop and have it look tack sharp onscreen is awesome. 
So should you be an early adopter? No. But on the other hand...

The Tripod story

I'm not going to give you all the details yet, because I'm waiting for one more email from Danny Lenihan, the president and CEO of 3LeggedThing in England, but I wanted to get this timely message out. (1) They have undoubtedly provided the best customer service I've experienced in years, and (2) their product is superb. It's half the price of the equivalent Gitzo, and it has features you wouldn't believe. I'll write another review when I get that email from Danny, clarifying a few points.

Now they've come out with a new generation, first introduced at PhotoKina in September, and I now have one. It's slick. Better than the old one, but that's like saying that a Bentley is better than a  Jaguar (I know, it's really a Ford, but, you know what I'm saying). You can buy the v. 1.1 Brian tripod complete with the AirHed for $329 at B&H until the end of November. That's $120 savings. I think the new generation one will be just shy of $500. Your call, and here's the link

Automatic ISO bracketing

I'm still playing with that feature, which I'm given to understand was made available by Nikon as early as the D200. But it's really useful with a camera like the D600 with which you can jump up to really high ISO numbers and still have acceptable noise levels. I also heard that Canons can't do it.

The trick is to hold a constant aperture and shutter speed, and achieve a 3-shot, 2-stop bracketed series by changing ISO. I don't have good results to report yet (or bad ones) because I haven't shot much for a while.

I'm experimenting but if you want to try it, here's the deal: go to manual so the camera doesn't screw with your aperture/shutter speed. If I can shoot my middle exposure at ISO 1600 or better, I can get the full 2-stop bracket I'm looking for. I'm holding minimum shutter speed at 1/500 for the 400mm lens and at 1/250 for the 70-200mm. Once I see how an HDR renders, I'll report on it here. 

Setting the mood

On to the title subject. I had a sort of funny discussion with Rosa the other day. Follow me here. Rosa is my artist friend and she really knows her stuff. She's a classically trained artist and sees things differently from you and I (OK, well me, anyway). The other day, she talked to me about balancing areas of light and darkness, the same way you would balance colours (yeah, like I really do that. {/sarcasm}). She hates the whole HDR thing, thinks pictures shouldn't be in tack-sharp focus from edge to edge, and holds up her hands in a cropping gesture a lot while looking at my images. She kind of sneers when I use the phrase "Rule of Thirds".

Anyway, the discussion went like this. She said to me that although some of my colleagues shoot technically better than I do (ouch!), she says what I do is capture moods and feelings and they don't. "Maybe they win competitions, but I like your pictures better". 

The funny part of the discussion was that she said to me, "you should shoot early in the morning when the light is better", as if it was a revelation from the Gods. It was as though she had never heard me say that or read any of my teachings! I've had the same kind of breakthrough in motorcycling: after years of riding and teaching, I remember saying and believing it as though a bolt of lightning suddenly came down from the sky, "you have to look where you want to go!". Non-riders won't get it, but one day it's as if something exploded in your head and you finally GROK (look it up) the concept. I don't know if this paragraph makes any sense, maybe you had to be there and hear the nuances, but 'yeah, ok...'.

So speaking of mood, here are a couple of recent images that she liked.

It was kind of a bleak day, but we both were taken by the surreal forest.
She said the light doesn't have to be dramatic all the time. 

I just thought I'd throw in a picture of Rosa I took on the same dull morning. I used the birch trees to frame her and I added just a touch of pop-up flash fill (-1eV, if I recall) to balance the light on her face.

This image is from a couple of days ago. I took the ATV for a ride and tried to beat the sunset to the end of the peninsula, to capture the sky across the lake. It was a bust: I was too late, and the sky wasn't that great, and the landscape was boring. However, there was this boat on a dock and the setting sun gave it a warm glow. I put the 10x ND filter on and shot a 15 second exposure which gave the water a smooth texture. I burned in the background a little to remove distractions, and increased the saturation a few percent.  

I knew I saw something when I shot this a couple of weeks ago, the first frosty morning of the season. The light filtered through the stand of trees in the background and lit up the tuft of reeds and grass. It was after seeing this that Rosa said I should seek out the dawn light. I hope this reproduces well: I'm going to try to print it. 
So kind of moody shots this week. None of them are HDR's, by the way. With fresh snow falling and the Christmas lights up at the Inn across the road, I'll try to do something more upbeat for next week. 

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trying a couple of new things

Last week I posted that it had been raining pretty steadily and it was tough to get out and shoot pictures. This week too: although there was at least one nice day, Life got in the way and I didn't shoot much. I did go out... but didn't bring much back.

I'm loving the D600

It's taking some getting used to. The quality is so good that you think you can get away with snapshooting, but the laws of physics still apply and so do the rules of photography. Handheld 1/20 second exposures don't work, even with this marvellous beast.

What I like about the camera is exemplified by these two less-than-wonderful shots. Let me show them to you, then explain.

This is about a 200% crop from the snapshot above. I did not do ANYTHING to it except crop it.

This is almost a full width shot, obviously cropped vertically. 

So what do I love? Look at the sharpness, the detail of these images. It takes me back to the days of shooting Hasselblads in the film days. I took the car shot because it's the first day of frost, the promise of winter to come. Boring snapshot. But when I blew it up and saw the incredible detail...

The ducks? I I startled them while walking along near my dock. Shouldn't have: I was wearing camouflage colours and walking quietly, but the ducks know it's hunting season. They were, I'd estimate, 200 m away and when they flushed, I brought up the camera and snapped a couple of frames, never expecting to see anything. Not even the 400mm lens, just the 200mm and on the full frame D600, that doesn't reach out and touch anywhere near as far as it did on the crop sensor in the D300. And yet look how crisp: you can even see individual feathers and water drops from their takeoff runs. Here:

The wing blur is because the shutter speed was 1/320 sec.  

This camera is a winner. Especially with the 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens.

Here's something else the D600 does

I'd have to check the D300 manual, but I don't know if it does Auto ISO. I started playing with that when I mounted the 400mm lens and was contemplating switching to shutter-speed priority because  I've yet to get a good shot with that lens under 1/500 sec. So I thought I'd try it: I set auto ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/500. Then I shot a 3-frame burst from my car window (open). Now admittedly, this wasn't at 400mm, but this is a new concept for me: bracketing shots using ISO instead of shutter speed.

Auto-ISO HDR. This seemingly abandoned off-road Jeep is called the "Mud Duck" (as above, you can easily read the name painted on the hood to the right of the duck decal). The lens was at 120mm. The three shots were at 1/500 sec at f/4.5, ISO's 1400, 5600 and 6400. A whole world of high-ISO shooting is opening up with this camera.

Windstorm takes down big tree

On Monday, we had some very unusual weather. Rain and strong winds, but from the South. Usually the winds here are from the West, across the lake, or from the North. The unusual South wind broke a huge pine tree beside my house in half. The tree fell in my neighbour's yard, and luckily it missed his house by inches.

With the help of my neighbour Jim Walker who lives two doors away (and who's going in for surgery tomorrow – today actually since it's after midnight. Kidney cancer. They say they'll be able to get it all. I wish him well), and his chain saw, we cut the tree up into chunks and tossed it back over my fence.

Now my intention was to drag the tree pieces over to the brush pile behind my garage, when I got my ATV back from service. New stator. It came back this morning, so I did my first meaningful job with it.

Using some heavy duty tie-down straps as a tow rope, it took about 5 trips to the back to bring the wood to the brush pile. Actually fun! 

While I was working on it, it occurred to me that I had read that the D600 did automatic in-camera timelapse. What happens is, you set it up and when it's done, it combines the individual shots into a video. I hope this works: I'm uploading the time lapse video here.

Then I thought, as long as I'm doing a video, I might as well do a real one!  So here's another one, not timelapse, shot as a full 1080p video from the D600!

Edit: pretty crummy quality. Here's a direct link to an uploaded version, much higher quality.

The full video was over 600Mb in size! So I imported it to MS Windows MovieMaker, laid a sound track over it and saved it as a smaller file. That gave me a .wmv file which I converted to an .mp4 at reduced quality, so this is only 19Mb in size. Hope it works!

Edit: pretty crummy quality. Here's a direct link to an uploaded version, much higher quality.

For some reason the videos don't run in Google Chrome, at least not on my computers. They work fine in IE9 and with Safari on the iPad. I'm not sure why, perhaps one of my readers might enlighten me.

By the way, the music track is my own. The first one with a harmonica and a blues backing track, the second one just me on my Yamaha keyboard. I recorded both with my iPhone and uploaded them to the computer.

Lots of fun! Lots of new things to try!

One last image

They replaced an old blocked culvert under Red Umbrella Road. It was a Rainy Day... I was taken with how the fluorescent colours on the workers' coats stood out, so I helped it along using Nik Silver Efex Pro and selective masking. Does that shovel look like it's about to scoop the guys up? 

That's all for now! Catch you next week.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Some featured images

Just a short post today. It's been tough to get motivated to get out to shoot pictures when it's been raining pretty well every day. And sometimes you have other things on your mind and keeping you busy.

Long-time readers of my blog will of course have noticed that the format has changed. I got rid of the black background and changed the width and fonts a bit to make it easier to read. I haven't abandoned Blogspot yet: I tried Wordpress for a while a couple of years ago, but I'm comfortable with this platform and don't want to go through the learning curve. If this were a monetized blog, I imagine I would have to switch over, but this serves my purpose for now. Let me know what you think and if I should modify anything.

Hurricane Sandy hit with a vengeance this week, of course. Not here, thankfully, although the rain I mentioned is from the fringes of that storm. My son in New York city was affected, of course: but according to emails, his home is high and dry and has power, work is a challenge though because he works in midtown Manhattan. My sister lives in White Plains and was more affected: she sent an iPhone picture of the tree branch that came down and killed her power. As I understand it, the whole area is without power and I don't know how long they'll be down. They've found some space with a friend and they're safe, but not at home.

Pictures featured

One of my images was reviewed by Jason Anderson on his blog, last Wednesday. He liked the image, but his comments made me think about one thing I didn't consider while planning the shot (it was planned, as I told Jason). Read his blog to find out what that was: and for great ongoing photo tips and information. Jason's OK for a Canon shooter (LOL).

This is the image Jason reviewed. 
And one picture that I submitted to the Richmond Hill Camera Club did well, taking second place in the assigned category for advanced shooters:

Again, very much a planned shot. I shot this last May when on a photo tour with Linda Cresswell. She's got an excellent travel and nature portfolio up at worth visiting. We've shot together several times, including up in Wawa last November.

Speaking of Wawa, this is the week for the Gales of November Workshop, facilitated by Rob Stimpson. Take a moment to view his portfolio at His images are compelling and inspiring. They've had some challenges up there too, with the Trans-Canada Highway washing out. It's still out and the Michipicoten Indian Reserve is still cut off as far as I know. Greyhound bus lines have had to cancel their transcontinental service for a week: Rosa's brother was supposed to travel to Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) in Coastal BC last week, but has been delayed. I think he's getting under way on Tuesday.

Four prize-winning images this month were taken by people accompanying me on mini-tours. I obviously can't take credit for their images, but I can for putting them in the right place at the right time! I'm working on more mini-tours, watch for details here...

My new (to me) ATV

As I mentioned earlier, I've swapped my motorcycle for an ATV. It was delivered last Wednesday. It's not perfect (we're addressing an electrical issue but Bob, the seller, is standing behind it and will get it fixed. I've had it out a few times now, but have to address some issues. It's a great platform for getting into the bush with my camera. I'm going to go easy and not push it, though. Although I'm an experienced motorcyclist, it's different and I need some time to learn how to ride it. Here's a picture I did the day it arrived (in the rain, of course!)

I couldn't decide whether to post the full coloured image or this selective coloured one. I like them both! This is a 3-exposure HDR with my D600, 2 stops apart. I'm beginning to get more comfortable with that option instead of the 5-shot brackets I used to do with the D300. It is a Polaris Sportsman 700, vintage 2002/3, with a snowplow as you can see. Although it's low mileage, it's lived an outdoor life so cosmetically it isn't great but the engine's strong and it's just what I need for clearing the snow.  

This HDR image was processed with Photomatix Pro instead of Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, which for some reason I've been using more frequently these past months. I find Photomatix works better for grungy subjects like this one. What's interesting is that I did NOTHING to this picture except to open it in Photomatix, and accept the default toning preset. The ATV shot worked better in HDR Efex though. Go figure.
Reworking an old image

I was looking through some old images and wondered if I could make them better with the software I have today, and with the knowledge and experience I now have. It's sobering to look at old stuff, that I thought was really great then but which wouldn't meet my current standards. That isn't to say that I didn't get some good shots then, but I feel like I've grown a lot since then. Here's one...

This shot was taken at Cape Spear in Newfoundland in 2006, with my D70.  I opened it in CS6 and used two different treatment layers, both with Topaz Adjust 5. I wanted to bring back the feeling of a foggy, rainy day, and yet spotlight my bike. By the way, it's parked on the left side of the road because it stands very vertically on the sidestand and I needed the camber of that side of the road to keep it from falling over.

This image was one of those featured in my Blurb book, "The Path of Least Potholes" which you can access on the right side of this blog. I'd really like to get back there again. Newfoundland is such an awesome place.

That's it for today. Please share my blog with your friends and colleagues, I'd appreciate an increased audience. More and more people tune in regularly — my hits are up about 50% in the last year, but more growth would be great!


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