Monday, May 26, 2014

It ain't easy being green

OK, when I wrote the title of this post, I Googled it and as I expected, it was written for Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street. But did you know that this song was covered by such illustrious people as Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra? Google is your Friend!

So what this post is really about is that it isn't easy shooting stars. The key is planning.

The Stars they Come Stealing at the Close of the Day*
* from Gordon Lightfoot's "Railroad Trilogy"

Last week I spotted a post on Facebook in the "From Quarks to Quasars" group that mentioned that the "Camelopardalids" meteor shower expected  last Thursday night might be spectacular. A look at the "Clear Dark Sky" chart site (here) indicated that we might just get lucky and have a clear night so with some quick last minute plans, a few of us got together to try to capture the event. Easier said than done.

It turns out that the meteor shower wasn't that intense. I have to say, I did see quite a number of meteors in the time we were out there. Many of them were not streaks across the sky, they were just a momentary flash. I surmise that was from a small meteor that burned up almost instantly when it hit atmosphere.

Anyway, we were out from about 1 am through 4 am. I caught a grand total of ONE meteor on the camera. I saw at least a dozen.

And to top it off, this was only a test shot while I was setting up! 10 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 12,800. I was just trying to get the composition right, the camera level and pointed at the sky. I never saw this one until I got back to the computer. You can click on the picture to blow it up

I've shot stars before, as my faithful readers know. I even wrote a technical blog on how to do it here and I'm planning a workshop in a few weeks (send me an email if you're interested in the workshop). Trying to capture meteors is a whole other ball game. I've seen some outstanding photos of passels of meteors, I know they were composited together but so far I can't figure out how. And a time lapse video seems to be the way to go but that's even tougher.

One thing you need to do is focus. In the dark. On infinity. How? If you go by the marking on your lens, I guarantee you'll be wrong. And with the lens wide open and virtually no depth of field, well that's critical. How do you do it? Like this:

Send someone out in the field with a flashlight (thanks, Kathy!) Then give it a wee bit more. This is something better done the day before in the light and recorded or taped down. 

Stars and planets move in a predictable path. Well actually the Earth moves, we all know that... Want them rotating around a point? Include the North Star in your shot. Straighter lines? Shoot less wide angle. Point in another direction, preferably South. Long streaks? Take out a calculator and figure out the angle of view of your lens, divide it into 360°. The stars take 24 hours to travel through 360°, so they'd take 416 minutes to cover the full width of my 17mm FX lens (104°) so 2 hours to cover about 1/4 of the frame. Divide that by the number of degrees away from the North Star and... you see where I'm going with this? It ain't easy being green!

But meteors? We learned that the "radiant" – the direction they seem to come from – was in the constellation Camelopardalis, near the North Star. But they could appear all over the sky. So where to point the camera?

Anyway, we needed to find a dark spot. We did, but Mother Nature interfered by putting a lot of moisture in the air, so it wasn't as dark as we had hoped and there were some clouds. With a little planning, I got a few good images, without meteors, unfortunately.

Facing South, we see light pollution probably from Bobcaygeon (50 km) or Peterborough (100 km) away. This exposure was 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 800, F=17mm but I did a LOT of tweaking to get it to look like this. You can click on the picture to blow it up

Truth be told, the above image is actually a composite done in StarTrax but it only looks marginally better than a single image. Facing North, I did a more traditional composite, including the North Star:

This was a series of continuous 30 second exposures – about 40 of them – using StarStax and putting it in "Gap Filling Comet" mode. The ISO was a bit higher, at 1600, and in hindsight it shouldn't have been. The two yellow clouds are light from Carnarvon (left) and Haliburton (right). 

So was it worth it? For me, yes. I got a few good shots, learned a lot, and got to shoot with Dave and Kathy and Amanda. Here's one more image I liked:

Another test shot at ISO 12,800. You can see the mist building up in the field to the North in front of the vehicles. 

Oh by the way: we saw a number of airplanes, but best of all, we saw the International Space Station make a pass across most of the sky. It was really bright! Unfortunately, that was about 5 minutes after we had packed everything up and were getting ready to go back!

Meanwhile, back at the Whitewater...

I dropped by there yesterday, it was a nice day and I figured I'd see kayaks. Too late, I guess,  but I took out the camera and tripod anyway. I was setting up for a little slo-mo water shot (which I didn't like in the end) when a guy and his girlfriend showed up and she sat down on the rocks where I was preparing to shoot, posing for his iPhone shot. Far be it from me to pass up an opportunity like that...

A little photoshop here... just a bit of skin smoothing and hair enhancing and teeth whitening and radial filter exposure enhancement. Not much... 

But you know I'm a "rocks & trees" guy, so here she is again, with rocks & trees!

I did an HDR of the trail, then composited her in sitting on a rock. If I hadn't told you, would you have known? 

Until next time!

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

If you go out in the woods today...

New Banner

Time for a new banner for the blog! This is what the forest looks like as spring arrives in the Highlands. If you're not seeing the banner because you're on an RSS feed, you need to open the blog in a browser. Clicking here should do it!

As usual, here's the previous banner displayed in-line to save it for posterity (it disappears as soon as it's replaced in the header).

Topaz Special

Topaz Labs plugins have been my go-to suite of image enhancing tools for some time now. Some of their products (like Clean, Clarity, DeNoise, InFocus...) add technical improvements to your images, and some (Adjust, Simplify, StarEffects...) add artistic effects, all much easier than trying to work them from grass roots in Photoshop, Elements or Lightroom. "Clean" is on sale right now for 50% off if you use the link below and enter "mayclean" in the discount field at checkout.

But Topaz Labs has recognized my contributions by extending a special 15% across-the-board discount for all products NOT currently on sale, if you enter "faczen" in the discount field at checkout! That's more than $50 discount on the complete bundle!

By the way, you can always try their full suite and check out all their products for 30 days before you buy, at the bottom of their main page!

Here's the link: TOPAZ LABS

The Future

A couple of weeks ago I talked about some developments that will colour our world in the near future. Turns out I wasn't the only one who noticed.

For instance, Yosemite National Park has banned the use of RC drone copters! Check out this link. I think that's the first thing that's going to happen: drones will be banned in many places. Then the next phase will be the introduction of fully computer-controlled drones (no testosterone-fuelled teenagers wielding joysticks!) and that will be the impetus that will make these vehicles ubiquitous in our skies.

There was a news story about a drone that almost collided with an airliner. The photo was faked, and I'm just guessing that the artist was thinking military drone but the actual event involved a small RC copter (they commented that the incident occurred at 2300 feet, "higher than the normal operating height of the drone"). Regulation is coming.

And driverless cars and the flying cars I mentioned are already here: read this! And go ahead and Google "Google driverless cars". They are actually predicting rolling them out to the public in 2017. That's less than 3 years away...

Combine the two technologies I've just mentioned and add in developments in power technology. I read that Quantum Entanglement might be the driving force behind releasing energy levels orders of magnitude higher than present day batteries can deliver. Large scale computer-controlled flying vehicles for personal and cargo transport suddenly doesn't seem so far off.

Can't stop thinking about this stuff!

Remember, you read it here first!

The Past

A discussion came up recently about why they're putting GPS's in cameras. I don't see why you need them, or even why they'd be useful. But here's an interesting factoid. I can't remember people's names, what I was going to buy at the grocery store or why I went into my living room for something; but I have over 100,000 digital images in my database going back 15 years and boxes of negs and transparencies going back 35 more years and if I look at any image, I could tell you where I was when I shot it. I also used to remember phone numbers but I can't do that any more.

I could also probably find the hotel I stayed in for two nights in Rio de Janeiro in 1985 or that great inn in Blowing Rock North Carolina, but since I got a GPS, I can never remember which road to turn on to go to my cousin's cottage 12 km from here. I could show you which seats we used to sit in when we watched the Montreal Alouettes play football in Molson Stadium in 1954, but if I didn't have a reminder pop up on the computer tomorrow morning, I'd probably forget the appointment I made to have my snow tires changed tomorrow.

The big one for me is words. I'll be in a conversation with someone (whose name I can't remember!) and want to say something but just won't be able to think of the word I want to say. It happens when I'm writing, too. I'll write something knowing it's the wrong word, hoping that I'll wake up in the middle of the night and remember what word I wanted to use. Sometimes I do. Don't ask me for an example: I can't remember any! (actually there's one word that's eluded me all my life, since the Debating Club in High School 50-odd years ago: "articulate". Whenever I want to say articulate, all I can come up with is "eloquent". Now if I stop to think about it I can come up with it after a few minutes. Odd).

Of course I can remember that an Oberflechenwellenfilter is a Surface Acoustic Wave filter and I could still recite the Schroedinger wave equation for the energy level of a photon emitted when an electron jumps from one quantum state to another (h nu equals minus two pi squared e to the fourth en zed squared over h squared times one over n one squared minus one over n two squared) but I can't for the life of me remember what any of that means.

All great, but where the Hell are my car keys?

Ah, the sporadic musings of a demented mind...

Mechanic in a Can

I've mentioned this stuff before. I was reminded yet again when I took my old lawnmower out of hibernation. This stuff is totally MAGIC.

It's called "Seafoam" and it probably got its name as a marine engine treatment. I was introduced to it by friends at VROC (The Vulcan Riders and Owners Club), because I rode a Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 for many years. It wasn't available in Canada but a ex-pat by the nickname "Kudzu" who visited from time to time, used to bring a case up for his friends.

Put some in your gas. Your motor, whatever it's in, will run 100 times better, cooler, smoother. Trust me...

I had a snowblower that wouldn't start. I put some Seafoam in and let it sit for a day. Pushed the button and it started instantly. I couldn't start my ATV last fall, probably due to a tank of bad gas. I had even booked a mechanic to come take it away and fix it. Then I remembered Seafoam. Next day it started and ran perfectly all winter (OK, it won't fix the leaky tire or 4WD electrical problem, but hey...).

The reminder yesterday was the lawnmower. I was worried because with my broken wrist, I couldn't pull the starter properly. I reached over with my left hand, gave it a half-hearted pull and... it started INSTANTLY after a long cold winter.

It's about $12 at Canadian Tire. NAPA sells it too, that's where Kudzu got it originally in the US. Get some.

Lens For Sale

Last week I showed you a picture of a female rose-breasted grosbeak in my pine tree. The male was more than elusive, I think he just didn't want his picture taken and as soon as I cracked the door to step out, he was gone. Even if I left it open, he knew I was there! I don't have a photo blind, that would probably have worked, but patience paid off and I got him! It was windy and his feathers were fluffed out.

Cropped out of a frame shot on my D800 at 1/800 second at f/5.6, ISO 2000 with my Sigma 120-400mm lens at 400mm, handheld. By the way if you think taking his picture was tough, try getting him to sign a model release!

I'm thinking about selling the lens I used to take that picture. I want to go in a different direction.
It's in mint condition, it sells at B&H for $900 US, at Henry's in Canada for $1050, so any way you go it's going to cost you $1200 to get it in your hands. Let's talk $900 Canadian, net. Contact me.

By the way, I got one image accepted at the GTCCC Inter-club competition 2014 and it was shot last fall with the same lens. Here it is:

Loon feeding chick. Shot on Lake of Bays in September 2013 on a D600 at 1/800 second at f/8, ISO 800 with my Sigma 120-400mm lens at 400mm, In a boat with Mike Bertelsen and others, using tripod as a monopod for stability
In Print

It's always nice to see my work in print. This time SunCorp (the Minden Times/Haliburton Echo) used one image on the cover of their Spring County Life insert (on display for free for the next two months!) and several shots inside. They also published my monthly column last week in the Haliburton County Living publication.

This is the cover shot they used. The last time one of my shots was on the cover of a newspaper was, um... 

Picture Time!

I took the 4-wheeler out for a little ride on the trail the other day. The forest floor was just starting to green up but the trees were bare. I originally did an HDR here but discarded it because it lost the feeling of serenity in the original. 

Almost in the same spot, this dirtbiker came buzzing by. My camera was set for a really slow shutter speed because I was doing motion-blurred tree shots so all I could do was grab a snap. Also I had the wide angle lens on, so this is a pretty tight crop. I was going to throw it then noticed how nice the motion blur looked and how it added to the dynamic feel of the picture! 

This was on Friday, May 15th and the trees are starting to show signs of life. I waited for this guy to come back the other way and managed to get a few shots. There's something about the feeling of the trees in this spot that I find rather compelling. The image was treated with Topaz Simplify, except for the biker himself which I masked out and then used Topaz Clean on him to bring up the detail. 
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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Signs of Spring

Workflow tips

From the "for what it's worth" department (FWIW): I thought I'd share a couple of workflow tips for my photographer friends. But then I decided it would be better to put it in my tech blog so most of my readers' eyes don't glaze over and it makes them not want to come back to visit every week! If you are a photographer and  use Photoshop or Lightroom or Elements in your post-processing, feel free to hop over to


The good folks at Topaz Labs have done it again. This month they have put Topaz Clean on sale at half price for the month of May.

That's one of those products that's a little hard to understand until you use it (you can try it for free before you buy it for 30 days). Here's what they say about it:
If you've ever post-processed a portrait for flawless skin texture, or made a car look clean and polished, or created the perfect sky... you know how difficult it can be. There's a fine line between "too much" and "not enough" post-processing - and you have to get it.
Topaz Clean makes it easy and fast to create perfect image texture. Instead of creating 5 different layers in Photoshop, just drag a few sliders in Clean and you'll get a great result in seconds.
Topaz Clean lets you smooth edges and surfaces in your photos. It's great for subjects like cars and portraits, and you can also use it to create some interesting effects as well. Clean has three main controls:
 * Smoothness: smoothes the surfaces of your photo. Useful for removing blemishes from skin, removing dust + noise, creating a "flatter" texture, and more.
* Edges: smoothly enhances edges with a unique process that looks "vectorized". This creates smooth and well-defined lines in your photo that work great on image features like hair and eyelashes.
* Texture: recovers and refines original detail in your image to keep it looking natural. For example, re-introduce original skin texture in your portraits to prevent your post-processing from looking too overdone or "plastic". 
Here's the link to the Topaz Clean product page. To take advantage of the half-price offer (valid until the end of May), enter the code "mayclean" at checkout when you order it.

Do you live in the past?

I do, and I admit it. My sister shared a site with me and I thought I'd pass it on. This website is called "45rpm DB" and it contains the full recordings of 77,000 45rpm singles dating from 1950 onwards! You can search for anything, but look at the "archives" tab: it shows the top 10 charts for each month and year. It's amazing how you can remember every single song from that many years ago.

As I type this, I'm listening to Michael Jackson's "BAD" from 1987. Before that it was Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" from 1973. How about "Surfer Girl" by the Beach Boys from 1963? Love this site!

Give yourself an Assignment

Again, this is for my photog readers. But it leads to some pictures for the rest of you too see, too. Bear with me.

I'm a really strong advocate for the "Competition" process in camera clubs. Not only does it get you to think about doing your best work, but it also gets the creative juices flowing. For me, it helps to have a theme or a reason to go shoot pictures. I like the time limited ones that force you to focus on a topic. I'm not that good with long projects, although I'm trying.

So last week, I noticed that the river was up again in Minden. We're all hopeful that it doesn't result in another flood situation like last year. I took a few photos and sent them to the local paper and not only did they want some, they also asked me for pictures to illustrate an article on "Signs of Spring".

This fixed dock on the Gull River in Minden is underwater again.

So are parts of the RiverWalk pathway and this bench illustrates how much the river is up 

Signs of Spring. Well, it's late this year. So if you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big surprise. Nothing to see! The trilliums (and trout lillies) are about the first wildflowers up) weren't there yet.

Early shot of an infant trillium not open yet. Just about the only one I could find. 

What to do, what to do. I did find some pictures from previous years in the archives, but I wanted to do some new ones. So I gave myself an assignment. What else would be harbingers of spring?

Iconic symbols like songbirds back at the feeder.

I hate grackles. OK, "hate" is a bit strong, but they show up in herds (I think a flock of grackles should be called a "Feh" or a "Yucky"). They drive off all the other birds, they squawk, they empty the feeders in a matter of minutes. This one was fluffing out his feathers, probably a display thing in mating season. Too bad there was an out-of-focus twig  blocking part of the tail...

I did manage to get this shot of a female rose-breasted grosbeak.
The male eluded me – every time I got close enough for a shot, he disappeared. 

Anyway, back to the 'assignment' thing. What else says 'it's spring'? "Well", I thought, "what about people out doing outdoor chores"? So with that in mind, I went out and found these:

Jack was out raking leaves on a property in Minden 

Keith was transplanting some trees at his place in Hunter Creek. Interesting guy: He and his wife (Carol?) retired here a year or so ago: they're not comfortable with country living yet, his wife says she never knows where she is, the roads aren't laid out in a grid like they were in the city! Keith and I talked about the flooding, he says anyone who builds or buys a home on a flood plain sort of deserves what they get! 

I stopped at the Minden Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Mart. Sue only opens for the season in April, so there's a sign of spring! It's pretty cool in her place with all the doors and windows open, she has to dress to keep warm. 

Spring flowers for sale, like these miniature daffodils and bluebells say "spring"! 

Tulips. This is going to be the cover shot for an insert section in the Minden Times next week! 

I think this is a killer art shot. Out behind the Fruit Mart was a stack of flower pots waiting for plants. A little Photoshop (Topaz) and voilĂ ! Going in my fine art portfolio. Contact me to buy a print!

By giving myself an assignment (or being lucky enough to be given one!) I was able to find some interesting images.

I mentioned larger projects: I've got two in mind. I'll share those soon. Watch for it!

Image of the Week

For 7 years I've been shooting this tree at the Minden Wildwater Preserve. I finally got it. This is a 5-shot HDR, using Nik HDR Efex Pro 2. I set "de-ghosting" on so I could isolate the moving water on just one frame. I'm definitely making a large scale art print of this one. Haven't decided what medium yet, probably Epson Cold Press Natural, and I'll probably ask Jim to mount it for me using his patented process. You need one for your wall. You know what to do

OK, enough typing. Time to go out and see how the Trilliums are doing. Oh, and I think I got a shot of that male grosbeak. Next time!

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