Friday, July 25, 2014

Busy Times

It's not supposed to be busy. It's mid-summer, I should be spending time sitting on the dock, going for a swim, mowing the lawn (yeah, well... this is the country, right? But when it gets too high and ugly...), sitting in the gazebo drinking a Marguerita, enjoying the festivals and activities up here in the Highlands.

I visited my friend Janie on Kushog lake last weekend. It wasn't the greatest weather but you don't need an excuse to go down to the boat! I think this captures her in a really great moment on the lake. 

I'm doing some of that stuff, but I find myself in front of the computer for too many hours every day. There's weekly trips to Toronto, weekend visitors, stacking firewood... but I owe it to my faithful readers to post to the blog, so here I am!

I don't want to bore you
with family pictures 

...but I have to post a few! I was in Toronto last week when my son and family came to visit. There are 3 pictures I'd like to share here, if you don't mind!

Amalia is the latest addition to the family. She has bright eyes, a captivating smile and her father's dimples. She's 5 months old and the most beautiful baby in the world! 

Her big sister Leah is going to be 5 years old in a month or so. She's happy, friendly, really smart and inquisitive, and of course loves chocolate chip cookies (who doesn't??). I have a bunch of shots of her but I think this one captures her best! It goes without saying that she's the brightest, most beautiful almost-five-year-old in the world...

No doubt, my mother's going to call me when she sees this picture and say, "how could you put such a horrible picture of me up on your blog?". I know you're not smiling, Mom, but that's only because you didn't want me to take your picture! The little 'gator in the foreground is worth  a comment: most of the residents at Thorne Mills have walkers and to distinguish them, they put ribbons or flowers or something on them. Mom's had this little guy who I call "Sebastian" (family joke) for quite some time. Anyway, the picture does capture who you are, Mom!

As most of you know, I'm not a great "people" photographer, but I'm trying. I took this casual portrait of Janie at the same time as the boat shot above, I kind of like the treatment and again I think it captures her essence well.

High key portrait, with some Topaz Simplify painting effects. I love Janie's hair even though she complains about it! BTW I did NOT use Topaz ReMask on this shot because it didn't need it, but I tried the new version and it's really slick. Her hair was a challenge, Topaz handled it easily! Go to my previous blog posting for a link to the plug-in and where to get it for half-price for the next few days. Oh, OK, here's the link, and use the code "julyremask" when ordering. 


In the last few weeks I've done a couple of different workshops. The "Stars" one had two parts to it, one a technical classroom seminar and the second part will be a field trip at Oh-Dark-Thirty (which is when the stars are out, duh...). The problem is, you can't shoot when it's cloudy. We were actually intending to go out tonight but the weather forecast changed so I cancelled it. Hopefully next weekend will be better. There's an interesting website called which has links to some 1900 observatories and observing sites in North America, with a wealth of information. Unfortunately their forecast only goes out a day or two so it's hard to plan ahead.

This was one of my classroom sessions this month. I'm willing to do more of them if anyone is interested, drop me a note and we'll see if we can work out a good date.  

This is one of the spots I picked out for the field session. As you can see, I'm facing East. There's a nice view to the North and West as well, South is not so good.  This looks like a dandy sunrise location as well, I'll check that out in the upcoming days if I can get out of bed early enough!

While we were there, we saw some cool dragonflies. I REALLY have to get a macro lens. If you see dragonflies, BE NICE! Remember, they eat mosquitoes!

People who regularly shoot macros will poo-pooh this shot because the back wings and the head are not in focus. I can do better... but this was shot with my 70-200mm lens with the 1.7x teleconverter mounted (no question about sharpness!). Handheld, 1/640 second at f/8, ISO 400.  I'm not sure of the species: I Googled it but didn't find the exact same markings anywhere. 

Don't try this at home, kiddies!

This was shot in Toronto, it was a hazy sunset, otherwise I wouldn't have pointed the camera directly at the sun.

I don't know if you can see the foreground detail on this internet version. Again, the same lens/teleconverter combination. You can ALMOST see the corona, certainly there's some detail at the edges. 

Some street photos

I'll close with some street photos I took this week. I have a tough assignment from the Minden Times to shoot what's going on in Minden: not much! It's a pretty sleepy town...

Cliff's big ole dawg is a common sight on Minden's main street. Nap time! 

These two guys were hanging out in front of the Dominion Hotel on a hot summer afternoon. I was trying to get their pictures without them noticing... I guess I failed! 

This is actually cropped from the same photo. I like the character lines in his face. The reflection of the other gentleman in the window adds balance and this shot has gathered some pretty positive comments on a few street photography forums. 

See you next week!

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Impressed? You bet.

...but first...

A newsflash from my friends at Topaz Labs.

They've put Topaz Remask on sale at 50% off for the month of July. Offer expires July 31

Think about the last time you created a mask in Photoshop. Even the most experienced photographers dread masking. Getting a decent mask can take hours and rarely gives you the results you need. ReMask is an awesome product: check it out for yourself!

Here's the link to the Topaz ReMask page. If you order, use the code "julyremask" at checkout to get your 50% discount. You can also download a 30 day free trial and see for yourself.

By the way, if you enter "faczen" in the code field at checkout, you get 15% off any Topaz product, including the full bundle. Use this link to get to their main site.

Now: How was I impressed?

First, by some outstanding customer service, and then by some great products!

If you've read my blog regularly, you'd know that I use a wonderful lightweight carbon fiber tripod and ball head made by a British company called "3 Legged Thing". The tripod I have is called "Brian" (I recently learned how they named their tripods. Each one is named after the artist that was playing in their design room when the product was conceived: read about it here. "Brian" is named after Brian May from Queen).

I broke Brian. Twice. See below. Anyway, I wrote them and within a couple of days, I had a response from 3LT. They're sending me the replacement parts and all I have to pay for is the shipping. It wasn't their fault, it was mine, but they are a GREAT responsive company.  Check out their stuff at B&H here

Second, by some neat products I got to try.

I was exceedingly impressed with three pieces of photographic gear I happened to be able to try in the past week.  Let me present the three new ones, in the order of likelihood that I might buy them!

Nikon 105mm micro-Nikkor f/2.8 VR lens

Gail B brought hers with her when she came to visit yesterday. I put it on the D800 and made a few informal test shots. That's an excellent piece of optics.

In addition to being exceedingly bright, as are other f/2.8 lenses, the build quality of this lens, its weight and form factor all made it a pleasure to use. But even better were the results, this is one tack sharp lens. I only spent a few minutes with it but I know I want one. Unfortunately, Gail wasn't interested in the offer I gave her and was far too observant for me to surreptitiously spirit it into my bag! Here are a couple of shots

People who regularly shoot this kind of stuff will scoff at this picture of a fly on a daisy. HOWEVER: it was handheld, a quick shot and I didn't bother to reset my camera so it was at a really STUPID setting of 1/8000 sec, f/3.2, ISO 800. A little LR adjustment and a Hi-Pass layer added in PS is all that was done to it. And I didn't shoot it from that close, this is really a 100% crop. 

This was a more reasonable setup, 1/160 second at f/16, ISO 200 on the tripod, no crop, direct sunlight. Intensely sharp where it was focused, as you can see from the blowup below.  

Same shot, 100% crop. Nothing done to it, outside LR. Colour me impressed. 

So I want one of these and it's bubbled to the top of my shopping list. You can get it at B&H here. My birthday's coming up...

Induro CT414 Tripod

Again, Gail brought hers with her. Brand new, she hadn't yet set it up. We threw the Gimbal mount on it and put the big 600mm on and it handled it with ease. There were several things I liked about this tripod: it's carbon fiber so it's extremely light and deceptively strong. The build is excellent and attention to detail is great. The friction nuts are big and solid and tightened down in a positive fashion. It extends up to considerable height. Not cheap at $660 US (legs only) but worth it. You can get it at B&H here.

When I compared my 3 Legged Thing tripod to this one, well it's apples-and-oranges. Mine is a lightweight, portable CF tripod that folds down to nothing but it doesn't have anywhere near the strength or solidity of the Induro. I tripped and almost fell last winter and broke the tripod trying to support myself. There's no doubt the Induro wouldn't have broken. I also broke the top of the column a couple of days ago but that was my own stupidity, mounting the gimbal mount and 600mm lens on top of the telescoping column. 

Nikon 600mm f/4 super telephoto lens

I have Dr. Ron's 600 mm lens here for a few days. This is one really serious piece of gear. The optical quality of this lens is undeniable. This copy of the lens is for sale at a huge discount because the autofocus is not working right. When I say a "huge discount", I mean about 85% off the retail value.

It\s not my thing. I'm slowing down physically and can't handle the kind of shoots for which this lens would be ideal, but to anyone who has birds or grizzly bears or... in mind, this is the lens for you.

I did mount the lens on my tripod (then broke it. The tripod. {sigh}). But if you want tack sharp, here you go:

This sign had to be 100 yards away.See the grey blob just to the right of the sign? Look about 500 yards further away and you saw... 

...this swan swimming about a mile away. I didn't even know it was there until I pointed the lens out there. 

I know, silly overprocessing, but just for fun. This Osprey was having a bad hair day. 

This is the 600mm lens, with Gail's D800 on the back, mounted on my gimbal mount which was attached to Gail's Induro tripod. By the way I took this picture with the 105mm lens, so that brings this whole thread together! 

At the White Water

I shot the Andrew Weslake Memorial Race at the Minden Wildwater Preserve last weekend. This is my favourite shot from the whole day.

The water was crazy high and fast. This wasn't even at the faster section upriver. Tala (I think that's her name) was one of the organizers: I saw her several times setting the course up – but she was also a competitor. The only thing about this shot? Her facial expression wasn't great (she had her eyes shut against the splashing water). But this tell the whole story for me. 

The Minden Times bought both a photo (not this one) and my story on the race. Can't say I agreed with the editor's choice of photo, but hey... They've bought several of my images over the past few weeks. The links aren't up on their website yet, but I'll pass them on as soon as they are.

See you next week!

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Monday, July 07, 2014

A Place for Everything...

... Everything in its place

I scared myself this morning. I thought I lost my watch. I took it off to go in the shower last night, I have a clear muscle memory of taking it off, but zero recall after that. Where did I put it down? To set the scenario, I was in the living room when I decided to shower, walked to the bedroom, undressed, grabbed my robe and went in the bathroom to shower. Not a lot of places I could have put the watch, the most obvious being on the dresser where I always put it.

I'll shorten the story to say it was in the laundry hamper with the shirt I took off, but why? No way I threw it in there, and I take care of things... why does this bug me? Because a couple of weeks ago I actually LOST a hard drive, you read about it here. I mentally went back to that incident and thought, "here we go again. I'm losing it". The scary connection to both incidents is the complete lack of memory of my action after I had the hard drive pouch in my hand, and ditto after taking the watch off my wrist.

Analysing my life, I've always been an "A place for everything, everything in its place" kind of guy. Even when I was growing up and my bedroom didn't have an inch of surface that wasn't a foot deep in 'stuff', I knew where everything was. If I'm going to survive my senior years (well, I'm not coming out the other end, but you know what I mean!), I'm going to have to concentrate on that "everything in its place" mantra.

Has anyone seen my cellphone?

That was "sporadic musing #1".

Watch Television

If you're a photographer, watch television. And when you do, notice technical things.

I guarantee you, whatever you're watching when you turn on the TV, the cameraman has composed the shot and 9 times out of 10, s/he's used the Rule of Thirds. Look at the focus. Look at the depth of field. Look at the clean background, the way you clearly know what the subject is in the shot. And look at the lighting.

If you're looking at a talking head, notice the way the face is lit. A sitcom? Look at the set. A movie is even more obvious, they create moods with lighting. 

But even better, look at advertisements! Lately I've seen a lot of photography talk about shooting cars: long workshops on how to light them, backgrounds, camera angles... and yet every 10 minutes we see an ad where the car is perfectly lit: no unexpected reflections, even smooth lighting, meaningful backgrounds and mood lighting.

Why is that? For one thing, the videographer is a professional. S/he's studied this stuff and uses it every day in his or her work. For another, they have more lights than B&H Photo, people to build and paint and move things and again the knowledge where to put what. 

So if you're a photographer, watch television. Put on your critical eyes and learn. If you make your pictures look like TV, you'll be a winner.

You can take this one of two ways: "I can never be that good, I don't have the equipment, the budget..." or "look what they did. I can do that. Maybe I don't have all those resources but I can try with what I have". Your choice!

PS, when you're finished watching television, read magazine ads...

That was Sporadic Musing #2.

Back Button Focusing

This is for the photographers among my readers. I kept hearing about "back button focusing" and decided, without giving it much thought, that it wasn't something I was interested in doing. Then I read up on it and thought I might try it just for fun, but I still didn't see the value in it. Then I tried it. Boy, was I wrong!

There are several advantages:

  • You'll never have to decide between Single and Continuous (Nikon: AI-Servo in Canon) again.  Or manual focus either!
  • Focus and recompose is a total no-brainer

Briefly, here's how it works. You turn off the function in your camera where you hold the shutter release down half-way to focus, and you assign another button on the camera to that role. You set the camera to AF-C (AI Servo) all the time. Now when you want to focus on a non-moving subject, you just press the designated button until focus locks in. If it's a moving subject, you hold down the button and as long as it's in the range of the focus points, the camera will track it and keep it in focus. Press the shutter release to take the picture.

So you're shooting, say, a still life and you need to take the camera down from your eye to adjust something. You've focused by pressing the button, you don't have to do it again! Just like using manual focusing. You were focusing on a bird on a stick and suddenly it decides to fly. Holding down the button, you're in continuous tracking mode! 

It's hard to explain why this is such a great method, you have to try it to understand it. However it takes a bit of time (let's say several hundred pictures) before you get comfortable with it, so don't just try it for a few shots and give up. They say to give it 2 weeks. I did, and I'm hooked.

Just a thought... what do the Nikon D3, D4, D800 and Canon 1Dx and 5DMkiii have in common? They all have "AF-ON" buttons on the back of the camera at the top right. Why do you think that might be??? (PS if your camera doesn't, odds are there's a way to program a button for that function).

I'm not going to write a tutorial about it: it's been done to death. If you Google "Back Button Focusing" you'll get 53,600,000 hits. And there are some good YouTube tutorials out there too. 

Fireworks pictures

I shot fireworks on July 1. There were lots of tutorials on how, from all kinds of people but I didn't need them: it occurred to me that all I had to do was follow the guidelines I've been talking about for shooting stars! It has a lot in common.

But fireworks are bright, you don't need a fast lens, f/8 is a good starting point with a low ISO. I ended up even darker at f/11 (because they're so bright, the colours will get washed out if you overexpose). All the tutorials make a big deal of how long to leave the shutter open: I open it with the cable release (on a tripod. Did I say you need a tripod? You need a tripod) and leave it open until enough bursts have happened. I found I was using about 5-10 seconds, but I only learned that afterward, at the computer.

See a really pretty burst? Close the shutter and reopen it. The bad part is (at least where I was, in Minden), all the fireworks started at roughly the same spot and went straight up. So they were all around the middle of the frame.

That's where you need your Photoshop skills. Open up a fresh black image, or one with the background you want. If you use a background, really darken the sky (mask, black layer) where the fireworks are going to go. Open the fireworks shots. Darken the Hell out of them, then drag them into the black frame as a new layer. Set the layer blend mode to "Lighten" and you're basically done, except to resize and tweak the burst and move it to where you want it in the picture. Now go get another image.

I really liked these two bursts. So I put them on a background as described above. I made sure the launch sites were included for a sense of depth.The one on the left had two tendrils off the top of the frame, I patched in curving ends so they stayed in the image.

Here's one more, this is a composite of 5 or 6 bursts, same background (I was on a tripod, remember?). I added in some firing points and rescaled them in Photoshop, and tweaked some of the bursts (lower right, if I recall) to make it wider and shorter.

Great practice for shooting stars!

Speaking of Stars...

Thursday (July 3) was cloudy and stormy, but the weather forecast said it was going to clear in the evening. I looked out around 10 and there were still some clouds but a few stars peeked out. I didn't plan it, but I fell asleep in front of the TV for a couple of hours and woke up at 12:30. Crystal clear night, so I went out. I have a couple of spots I wanted to scout for the field portion of the stars workshop and chose one. Turned out pretty good!

When I got there, there was the Milky Way! I had planned to do a star trails shot, but I decided to do the single milky way shot first, and here it is:

Not only that, but I caught a meteor! I saw a couple of others, but not where the camera was pointing. This is a pretty good spot, light pollution was minimal... 

I did a bit of enhancement in Photoshop, for colour balance and to bring out the contrast, etc., but this is basically "As Shot". I cropped a teeny bit off the bottom and left, but it's right out of camera. If you're interested, 30 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600, F=17mm FF. The ISO 800 shot was a bit better but it didn't have the meteor in it!

Then I did a star trails sequence. 

90 exposures, 30 seconds each at f/3.5, ISO 800, again 17mm FF. It's a little too bright, too many stars. I might do a little Photoshop and cut it back before blending. If you're doing these, know that the merged picture is going to be brighter than individual images overall. Click the image to blow it up.

I added in the "flashlight" shot afterwards. After shooting the 90 images (I planned 100, but I lost count!), I went out with the light and stood there for 30 seconds. I had to colour the beam to make it stand out, though!

Two more shots

I was cleaning out my archives and came across this 5-shot sequence from a couple of years ago that I hadn't processed. I ran it through Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 then added some paper textures and a frame. Too bad they're crummy plastic chairs...

At the white water the other day, I spotted this rock nestled in another rock. It looks just like a bird's egg in a nest! Hard to imagine how that got there naturally, if it did... 
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Thursday, July 03, 2014

New Beginnings

Canada's new anti-spam legislation came in force today — I'm writing this on July 1, Happy Canada Day to all my Canuckistanian readers, and Happy Independence Day to my American Friends — and it is forcing a big re-think by everyone who maintains a mailing list. Those who are located in Canada, anyway: most of my spam comes from more obscure places who aren't going to pay attention to our laws.

In the past, I added names to my mailing list of people whom I thought MIGHT be interested in reading my blog, friends and acquaintances and people I met or had dealings or communications with. You can't do that any more. All I can do is send them an invitation to subscribe, and the link to the subscription form (if you're reading this, and you're not a subscriber, PLEASE click the "Newsletter" link at upper right. The newsletter is simply an alert that there's a new post on the blog and a hint as to what it contains. One email a week).

So as I write this, my list is only 1/10 of what it was: I'm only a couple of hours in, people are away and haven't read their email yet, there's this whole world of apathetic people out there, and lots of people who are inundated with email and don't want more. On a positive note, that means that everyone who is reading this is doing so because they want to! (update: it's July 3 and I'm up to 25%)

I'd really like to build it back up again, so please forward this to your friends and colleagues, whom you think would enjoy this weekly blog.

Something else new...

Is the header picture. As my loyal longer-term readers know, when I replace the blog header, the old one is gone forever, so I take a second to post it here.

This is the previous header, posted in May 2014. I like to keep them seasonal. Not looking forward to putting next year's winter one up! 

So a note about the new header: the background picture is a composite of 50 exposures, married using StarStaX (it's a free software utility, available here, that's designed to merge images to create star trails). It works on clouds too!

The bear was a photo I took at the Landfill (OK, the "Garbage Dump"!). The background was really ugly, to say the least. So I thought I'd try the new "Focus area selection tool" in Photoshop CC 2014 and it really works! After using the refine edge dialogue, it really rendered even the hairs of the bear! So after a little tweaking (and a flip, I like him facing this way), I composited him into the shot.

Here's the original bear picture, after I selected him and applied a heavy Gaussian Blur to the ugly background! 

This is the original cloud shot. After I merged the 50 images in StarStaX (I actually had 135 images but after 50 the effect seemed to downgtrade), I laid a masked version of the tree on the left on top because the wind was blowing and the moving trees didn't render well. 

New Toy

For starters, those following the blog should know the Sigma 120-400 lens has found a new home, someone who will enjoy it as much as I did. I find myself these days trying to travel a little bit lighter and I found I left this lens at home a lot. Just too many lenses to carry! So I decided to give it up and acquire a Nikon TC-17e II teleconverter. It only gets me 340mm focal length, at a slightly bigger aperture (f/4.8) but it fits easily into the bag. I haven't shot much with it yet — the bear above was one example — but I'm quite pleased with its performance. Here are a few more shots:

Nice and sharp, good bokeh (I suppose that comes from the lens) 

A different approach! I came in close for this one, then I used the new version of the Paper Texture Pro extension in Photoshop CC 2014 for the textured background.  I'll bet this will make a gorgeous print! Contact me.

Good Canadian source for the teleconverter? In the US, B&H Photo. By the way, it only works on selected lenses like the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR, so be careful.

Speaking of long lenses

There's a phenomenal deal out there. The 600mm f/4 is arguably the best long lens Nikon has ever made. The only problem was the price tag: over $12,000. Dr. Ron had one trashed by an elk (here's a link to the story in case you missed it) and although in the end it was repaired, it isn't perfect. The autofocus is working, but more slowly than it should. Optically it's perfect. He wants to get rid of it, insurance has replaced it, and is asking an unbelievable $1800 for it. If you're interested, drop me a note and I'll put you in touch. Move quick!

Another friend has gone over to the dark side. He has a bunch of immaculate Nikon gear for sale, including two D800 bodies, a 70-200 f/2.8, a 300mm f/2.8, a 400mm f/2.8 and a bunch of other stuff. These are NOT going at fire sale prices, they are spotless but I'm sure you can make a deal. Again, I'll put you together if you write me. Where's the lottery fairy when you need her? If you want to know what to buy me for my birthday, well I'd find a way to cart around that 300 or 400 f/2.8!


Here's a deal from B&H Photo: If you've been meaning to get a calibration device for your monitor, they have the Datacolor Spyder4PRO on sale for $70 off! It's for July the 4th, so I don't know how long the discount is on, but here's the link. And Elements 12 is $60 here

Here's a sad picture

Other people get great pictures of beautiful wildlife. I'm not so lucky. Neither is this mangy, emaciated fox who has obviously seen better days. I think he was injured, somehow, or sick. He limped, and likely wasn't able to hunt. I'm guessing he didn't have long to live and I wish I had been carrying so I could have put him down. This is not a happy shot, so don't click to blow it up if you don't want to. 
On another note...

Candid Camera

I caught this shot at the Minden Wildwater Preserve. These were campers on the Preserve side who had come down to the river to bathe. This young lady was washing her hair and did this to rinse the shampoo out:

This was entirely candid: if she knew I was there, she was ignoring me. I enhanced the contrast and motion using some Photoshop filters but this is how it looked! 

FWIW, I cropped this out of a bigger shot. Her boyfriend was in the background doing the "pants on the ground" thing but without underwear and I didn't think it belonged in the picture. Here:

Kind of on the edge of "PG"... 
So that's it for the first post in my new generation blog. Not a ton of change in style or content, I like sharing pictures and stories and giving an insight into goings on in my world and up here, linking up to interesting things and events. Stay tuned!

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