Friday, September 19, 2014

Fall is here!

What a wonderful summer!

{begin sarcasm mode}Was it hot enough for you? Enough clear starry nights? Sunny days? {end sarcasm} As far as I know, Toronto only had one day with any kind of heat warnings all summer. But at least two big heavy duty storms.

We have not had one single suitable night for star photography all summer. As we joked at the club meeting on Wednesday, our star shoot will be in February! And I'll bet only a few of my students will want to be there! (I actually do have an idea about that, we'll have to pursue it later on).

And yet I heard that from a Global perspective, the average temperature worldwide was higher than ever. Just not here. Or in the US. Or in Europe, I understand. Africa and Asia got it.

Onward and upward! Pray for Fall Colours!

Remember, there's a free eBook on shooting Fall Colours available by subscribing to my Newsletter. Click the button at top right!

Topaz has done it again!

They released a brand new product yesterday, called "TOPAZ IMPRESSIONS". If you like to convert photos into fine art, this is the plug-in for you (it also works as a standalone, but all the Topaz products seem to work better for me inside of Photoshop (or Elements) because you can control it better using masked layers.

Click this link to go to the Topaz Impressions page. You can see some great examples of how it works, download the free trial or buy it right there. If you key in the coupon code, "SEPIMPRESSIONS" at checkout, you will get a 25% discount. This is only valid until the end of September!

I'm sure there's a deal there if you already own the bundle. I'm waiting for Topaz to reply to that question but I see that if you have a log-in on their site you may be able to find out there. As soon as they tell me I'll pass it on.

Remember, you can also get a 15% discount on the entire bundle or any other individual Topaz product by using the code "FACZEN" at checkout. This one doesn't expire but you can't get BOTH the 15% and the 25% at the same time (I wish!).

Do the math... 15% of $429 is $64. 25% of $99 is $25. If you're buying the bundle...

New Fall Colours Banner

Here it is (for those using RSS Feed so they can't see it at the top). This is an impressionistic picture of the early fall colours!

Win some, lose some

I usually drive the Argyle Road from Beaverton in order to avoid the 50km zone in Kirkfield when I'm travelling from Toronto to home. On Friday, I did as well, but for another reason. For once, I wasn't in a huge hurry to get home, it was a nice day and I wanted to take my time and some pictures.

There are several solar farms under construction in that area. I learned that several farmers had agreed to sell their land for that purpose, and for several reasons – access to the grid, flat geography, etc – it's ideal. I've been wanting to get some pictures of the solar arrays, so I stopped to ask permission to come in and shoot.

Nope. Got to get agreement from the company that owns the place. I got a clear explanation at the second place I stopped at: liability. If I trip and fall on their property...

The problem is, they have a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire to keep people out. And the links in the fence are small, less than 2". No way to shoot through it without seeing the fence. This is the best I could do:

Too bad. There were some awesome pictures to be had there. In hindsight, if I had my point-and-shoot with me I might have been able to, by putting the lens through the hole. Think I'll try that next time.

Now THAT's a tree

I kept driving and ended up on a back road south of Kirkfield. There was a section where trees overhung the road, I stopped for some shots but I'll come back again after the colours are mature. However just after that, there was a farmer's field with some awesome oak trees in it. I spent some time there trying to get some images, I did get a couple. I had a mental image when I came in, don't know if I achieved it, but I stuck around and "worked the scene", and came up with this one.

Technically, it's a 5-shot HDR which I edited quite a bit. The textures were wonderful, but too overpowering. So I went to Topaz Simplify to smooth them and then I did some toning in Lightroom.  

Same tree, different view.This is what I envisioned when I was actually there, shooting it. For the tekkies, deliberately overexposed. Everything was done in Lightroom, using the adjustment brush, then I took it into Photoshop and used Nik Color Efex Pro 2 to enhance the high key look. 

As I said, I wasn't in a hurry and I wanted to have a look at the Carden Plains, an "Important Birding Area" just North of Kirkfield. I took an hour or so exploring up Wylie Road, then turned on Alvar Road. There weren't a lot of birds around, must be the wrong time of year.

Wetlands on Alvar Road. Probably a good idea to have 4WD here. A few minutes later, 3 deer crossed the road about 50m ahead of me, a buck and two does.   

PS, I did talk to some people on Wednesday (notably Dan Busby, who will be presenting at the HHCC meeting next month, don't miss it!) who are familiar with Carden Plain. Apparently Ontario has now designated it a Provincial Park. And the right time to visit is late May, into June (I said you probably should bring a macro lens to take closeup pictures of the blackflies!). You can bet that I'll be there. How have I not been there before??

Why do I do Photoshop?

Or more accurately, "post-processing". I have to admit it's partly because I don't work well under time pressure. I'm off-topic here, but yes, I'm a procrastinator, yes I wait until the last second and put myself under huge time pressure, but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm a "deliberate thinker". I need to sit back and analyse things, then take action. So making on-the-fly decisions  is not my fortĂ© and that includes while I'm looking through the viewfinder. The best camera I've ever bought is the D800 which gives me so many megapixels I can crop and straighten like crazy, and which has such good high ISO performance and dynamic range that I can ETTR (expose to the right) and fix stuff later in Photoshop. Or Lightroom. Or a number of plug-ins like Topaz and Nik.

So I'm about to give you a dumb example. Don't laugh, OK? When I was in Carden Plain, I drove past these cows. I remembered that I needed a "cow" picture for the HHCC Scavenger Hunt so I took a couple of snaps. The 70-200 with the telextender was on the camera and I just shot from the seat of the car at 340mm. This was the one I liked the best

I was a little slow; the two cows – one's a calf – were actually  interacting better in another shot but I didn't nail the focus.
Crappy picture, right? Horizon skewed, cows in the middle, a tree growing out of one of them, bad foreground, didn't fill the frame... but this is how my vision works. I knew I could solve most of that stuff in post. By the way, focus was not tack sharp either.

In Lightroom, I straightened it, cropped a little, toned the image a touch, then I used the Radial Filter tool to make them stand out from the background more. Then I took it into Photoshop and used the new "shake reduction" filter to sharpen it, and even took a paintbrush to the eyes to make them more crisp. I cloned out the tree. I cropped it again to get them out of the middle and saved it. I played with some plug-ins and while I was looking at the oil paint option in Topaz Simplify and really liked what it did to the sky; so I ran it, then masked out everything except the sky, and did a little painting with the healing brush. In the end I also blurred it a bit because the contrast between the sky and the rest of the picture didn't look natural. VoilĂ !

Not the world's greatest picture, it's not going to end up in the National Gallery, but somehow I like it. Now if these had been lions instead of cows... 

Cool, Unique Product

What do you buy someone who has everything? Something different. I ordered a pillow from RedBubble for my granddaughter. She loved it. And her little 6 month old sister apparently has been "saying hello" to it!

This picture is a screen capture from the Redbubble site. Visit my Redbubble page to see the pictures I have available there. Buy something! I haven't actually seen the pillow yet, it was delivered to Leah in New York, but I'm going to order one for me, perhaps with a different picture. If you join Redbubble, you can upload any hi-res picture and order prints and other products too! 

The whole thing cost me $40 US including shipping and everything. You can buy three different sizes (this was the medium), and the whole pillow or just the outer casing and you put what you want inside (cheaper and your choice...).

As an aside, ever watch Two and a Half Men? Walden has three pillows on his couch with custom markings. Comment here if you know what they have on them!

Algonquin Park Photowalk

Pretty well every year I swear I'm not going to shoot more Fall Colours and every year I do. Last week I told you about my planned photowalk to Algonquin Park. Yesterday I visited the Frost Centre to find out the rules about using the area (it's closed and "No Trespassing" signs are posted. But if you access from the south end, where the Algonquin Highlands hiking trails begin, it's legal.

Technically, the beach is part of the Frost Centre, but the hiking trail cuts between the Centre and the beach, so I don't see it as a problem. Neither does Curtis, the Township guy who runs the Parks and rec office right there. By the way, there's less colour at the Frost Centre than there is where I live (OK, well "green" is a colour, right?) but I'm sure it will be outstanding two weeks from now.

If you want to join the Photowalk, you need to sign up. Click this link to do so. By the way, it's free except (a) if you're not a club (HHCC) member, we're asking you to buy a coffee mug for $10 to support the club, (b) you need to get a day pass for the Park when you come in ($16 per vehicle) and (c) of course you're on your own for food and gas. I'll send out a list of people interested in carpooling after this weekend.

Featured image for today. Early fall colours in the Highlands  

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

If it feels good, do it

Scroll down to read about the Algonquin Park photowalk at the end of September...

I don't usually do this, but after I wrote this article for Haliburton County Living, I thought it might be appropriate to reproduce it here.

Tell Me a Story

Photography has 1000 rules. And you have to learn and follow all of them if you want a successful picture. Bull. There are only two.
  • (1) You can’t take pictures if you don’t have a camera with you. 
  • (2) If it feels good, do it. 
Let’s talk about equipment. There are those who believe you can’t take a good picture unless you have $12,000 worth of cameras and lenses and a Sherpa to lug them around for you because they’re so big and heavy. Tell that to the photographer who made a Sports Illustrated cover photo with his iPhone. In fact, there are gurus out there I don’t read anymore because that’s the line they spout. Now you have to understand that I DO have expensive and high end camera gear, but there’s a picture attached to this article that I took with a $100 point-and-shoot.

This was taken on a warm, relaxing sunny afternoon on 12 Mile Lake, with a small pocket camera. I want to be one of those guys enjoying a paddle on the calm water.

Why? Because I was out in the boat (and it’s just a teeny-tiny little boat) and I’m a little afraid to take my D800 and big lenses out there. I threw my old point-and-shoot in the dry bag – I love dry bags, you should have one even if you don’t have a boat – so I had something with me. Truth be told, I had two cameras with me because my iPhone was in the bag too, but for other obvious reasons. I couldn't do the world’s greatest high resolution image, but I got something, and I was able to make it say what I wanted it to back in the computer. But that’s just me – you don’t have to be a post-processing freak either, although I admit it helps.

So why have expensive gear? To give you a better chance to make an image that looks like what you saw in your mind’s eye. You can eliminate some of the limitations and capture that feeling or memory. Which leads me to point 2:

Photography shouldn't be about making pretty postcards. I take that back, there are people who make a living selling pretty pictures and I don’t want to belittle their efforts. That guru I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago said, “If you want to make beautiful pictures, you need to take pictures of beautiful things”. Bull, again. Some of us can’t go to the Taj Mahal or Antelope Canyon or Iceland. We take pictures of where we live and our friends and family, who may or may not be professional models.

 Maybe I'm mellowing with age, but photography should be about capturing emotions and memories. It has to bring you back to a place or time and it has to communicate what was special about that event to whomever looks at the picture. Otherwise why would we have photos of our long gone parents or ancestors, and why are the most meaningful ones the pictures we took ourselves?

It’s easy to teach people how to take better pictures, that is if you can avoid boring the students to death. The first part is purely mechanical, what buttons to push, how to set up the camera, some insight into how it works and what you can do so your image will look technically correct. The second part is to familiarize them with some of those 1000 rules so that they can instinctively use them and know what to avoid. Teaching composition, and even post-processing is also not tough, it just requires a bit more concentration on the part of the student.

Teaching people how to see… that’s the hard part. To use their right brain, to make, not take a picture. Just to put them in the right frame of mind, on the right path. Maybe this will help: figure out how to capture the moment so you can look at the picture later and remember how you felt at the time.

If it feels good, do it.

FWIW, you've already seen the other two pictures that accompanied this article (click them to blow them up if you haven't): the one of the paddler on Maple Lake  last week and one of a racer at the PanAm Games test event from the week before.


The caption on the Paddler picture makes the point in the title of this article. It said,
Because it’s a wide angle shot that includes the landscape and the sky, this image, taken where Maple Lake meets Highway 118, tells a story more than the other images. Available as a large format print, if you’re interested.

I have to admit that I haven't figured out how to teach people to see. In fact, I can't do it either myself sometimes. Something to work on, hoping for an epiphany.

A little Nostalgia

Who remembers this bag?

If you've ever played Scrabble, was there any other bag you ever kept the tiles in? The bag in this picture dates back probably 60 years. I have a couple of other versions as well. It's the perfect size to hold my camera sensor cleaning kit!

From the Crown Royal website:
The first exquisite blend of Crown Royal® Canadian whisky was meticulously crafted from 50 select whiskies, dressed in the finest cut glass and wrapped in purple robes, to commemorate the first grand tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in 1939. And in truly noble fashion, this bottle of Crown Royal® was placed on the Royal train as a symbol of the hardworking and genuine nature of the Canadian people.
Apparently the design of the purple bag was originated by Sam Bronfman himself. The bags were produced by Montreal Swiss Embroidery Works, Ltd., founded by his colleague Jules Springer (my grandfather. I don't know if they were ever friends). When he died in 1958 the company was taken over by my father, Robert Springer and his two brothers.

It's interesting that Seagram's has brought the bag back for their 75th anniversary. I still have some original bags, found among my father's effects when he passed away in 2010. FWIW, a Manhattan, made with Crown Royal and vermouth (and a dash of bitters, which I usually omit), was my father's favourite alcoholic beverage and is still mine (although I admit I'm quite taken with some well-aged single malts as well!).

PS: Seagram's had a very creative ad many years ago. It was a picture of a Crown Royal bottle smashed on the floor, with the caption, "did you ever see a grown man cry?". Remember it? If you're under 60 you probably won't, it was a long time ago.

Early Influence

I got to thinking about my early influences as a graphic artist. Probably the best example was this 1959 ad:

Attribution: "Think Small" by Magazine. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Think Small via Wikipedia -

This is one of my favourite images. I have a print here that was on display at the Rail's End Gallery for a time. I'm having framed as we speak. It's pretty clear what influenced me when I created it. 

Sensor Cleaning followup

As I mentioned last week, it was time to clean the sensor on the D800. I have some 11,500 shutter actuations on the camera without any visible signs of sensor dust – a testament to Nikon's improved design and technology, a far cry from the D600 issue I had last year. A few spots appeared last week.

I had heard great things about the new Eyelead Gel stick and tried to buy one. The manufacturer was backordered, so I shopped on eBay and found one from the Far East. Turns out it was not an original (although it was priced the same). However the technology looked identical. Turns out it may not be.

The Gel stick has a sticky surface which you press (lightly!) on the sensor and it's supposed to pick up dust. It does, but unless I'm mistaken, it leaves a trace of adhesive behind. I won't be using that again. So I took out my SensorPen and used it. It was effective: I got everything I could see in about 5 minutes.

If you are careful and delicate, you don't have to worry about damaging your sensor (DISCLAIMER: I'm not telling you to do it yourself. If you do, and you damage the sensor, it's YOUR FAULT, NOT MINE). I think you have to take much more care when you do a wet cleaning. I found the kit that I bought at B&H the most effective, it includes a rocket blower, an illuminated loupe so you can actually see those bits of dust, and the SensorPen. Here's the link to where I bought it.

Photowalk planned

Last year I did a photowalk up to Algonquin park at the end of September. I'm doing it again this year, together with the Haliburton Highlands Camera Club. I'd like to invite my friends and loyal readers to join us.

Last year, on the beach behind the Frost Centre 

Also at the Frost Centre last year 

I'm usually pretty good at remembering where I was when I shot a picture, but this one is eluding me. Could be the Oxtongue River Rapids... Shot in 2011. 

There's no charge. This is not a teaching field trip, just a guided visit to some sites we know about that are 'photogenic'. However, in fairness to the Club, if you are not an HHCC member, if you join us, we're asking you to buy at least one HHCC coffee mug at $10 to support the club.

We're working on the agenda as we speak. Our tentative plans are:

  • We are NOT going on a weekend. Algonquin Park is a ZOO on weekends during fall colours season. I refuse to sit in a 20km long traffic jam.
  • Dawn shoot at the Frost Centre just South of Dorset on Highway #35. If you're not an early riser, you can join us at one of the other stops
  • Breakfast in Dwight
  • Come into the park at the West Gate on Highway 60 and meet somewhere, somewhen! (Maybe Mew Lake campground, we'll see). You have to buy a parking pass at the gate on the way in, I think it's about $15. We should carpool...
  • Visit a few good spots for photography. We can go as a group or split up, as you wish
  • A quick lunch somewhere, maybe at the Canoe store.
  • Exit the park and go to Ragged Falls
  • Gluttons for punishment might stop at the Kawagama River Rapids on (ready for this?) Kawagama River Road out of Dorset
  • Go home and sleep.
Tentative Date: Monday, SEPTEMBER 29
Rain Date: Thursday, OCTOBER 2

I'm HOPING it's not a bright, sunny, clear blue sky day. Last year it was and I came home with very few good pictures. If it's an ugly, rainy day, we'll postpone, but otherwise it's a go.

If you want to join us, YOU HAVE TO LET US KNOW WHETHER TO EXPECT YOU. I'll send additional details as we go along, including where and when. If you do not complete the survey, we will NOT send out details to you. If you're not sure, do the survey and add a comment at the bottom. 

That's it! Until next week...

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

September. Bummer.

I love September and the colours are coming, the colours are coming, but, hey, did we have summer?

It's Labour Day Monday

Mondays have always been my day off. That started about 20 years ago, when I used to teach the firearms safety courses on weekends (wow, has it been that long? Started in 1994!), then the motorcycle course for 12 years starting in 2001. I always felt a little guilty when others would bemoan the worst day of the week.

Now it's photography courses, and of course, photo events which  are often on weekends too. Yep, Monday's my day of rest. So I thought I would share my to-do list for today. FWIW, the sun is shining, it's 23°C now, going to 26.

  • Stacking firewood. I do a little at a time, and I have about 2 or 3 days more work to do until it's finished. Yesterday was tough because a whole row of wood collapsed and I sweated to get it re-stacked.
  • Mowing the lawn. Haven't done it in a month. Really need to, figuring there will be one more opportunity after this before fall sets in.
  • Posting bills. There's a big stack on the table that needs to get in the computer. Don't ask me about paying them... I also have a couple of small orders to process.
  • Doing my monthly hard drive backup. Shouldn't put this one off.
  • Cleaning the house. Yeah, well...
  • Writing my September article for Haliburton County Living. It's a day late...
  • Working on my Black Background Flowers Photoshop tutorial. So far I've written the intro and preface, taken some workflow screen captures, thought about what I'm going to write...
  • eMail catchups. I need to send the results of the last competition to the judges, gather the troops for the scheduled shoot at the Wilberforce firehall on Thursday, 
  • Try to put some time in on the Blurb book I was going to do called, "The Best of 2013". Not 2014... maybe this one is for rainy days.
And here's a couple more things to do:
  • Going for an ATV ride, to get some pictures in the woods. I could continue over to the Whitewater to see what's going on there, although there's no formal event scheduled for today.
  • Going for a boat ride. I cleaned the spilled gas out of the boat yesterday, checked the motor and attached the steering arm extension. Should I take the camera, or a fishing rod?

Stay tuned, I'll tell you tomorrow what I actually did today!

Update: I made it a two-day affair. I went for the boat ride, stacked firewood, posted bills, did my email catchups. Running my backups as we speak.

Here's the firewood situation as of yesterday. 9 face cords down, one to go! The area behind the "firewood wall" to the right is my little working cave, where I split the wood to make smaller pieces to burn and kindling. The 'wall' keeps the snow out. Last year it collapsed, so I added those "X" braces and stacked more carefully. We'll see...  
OK, Update: 
  • Firewood got finished two days later
  • Mowed lawn
  • Did backup
  • Posted some bills & stuff
  • Went for ATV ride and boat ride.
Yeah well...

Big Surprise

Last week I mentioned that I went out shooting stars one night (there has not been one single clear, cloudless night this entire summer. Bummer). I went to the Island Causeway location I've tried a couple of times now. When there are clouds, or moisture in the air, the light pollution from nearby towns is visible. That's what I figured I was seeing  when I set up and did a couple of test shots. this is what I saw:

Facing South-west, that's probably the lights of Minden. No great shot of the milky way tonight. So I turned around to try to do a star trails shot.

I read a tutorial on shooting the Milky Way and saw that the author's original image wasn't much better than the one I had. So I thought I'd try using his methods. Here's the result.

Not that happy with it but I can see the potential. Here's the link to the site where I found the tutorial: 

It wasn't until I got home and uploaded the images that I discovered it wasn't light pollution after all, it was the aurora borealis! The camera saw it, the eye 'almost' saw it!

This was one of the first images in the sequence. I did quite a bit of enhancing to bring out the contrast and details. 

And here's the combined stacked star trails image:

This is a merge in StarStaX of 144 sequential images, each one 30 seconds at f/4, ISO 800. It took a lot of work to render this image, the glowing aurora interfered with the blending process in StarStaX.
Before I left (at 3:30 am) I tried a few other shots.

I did this by zooming the lens while the shutter was open. Like the 3D effect? 

Then brought to you via the magic of Photoshop,

And here's another one, with the addition of Topaz Star Effects and Simplify. Don't forget you can click any image to blow it up.

Enough "Stars" for a bit. Although the weather forecast is FINALLY showing some clear nights coming up next week so I'll probably go out and shoot some more. 

In an"Art" mood

Sometimes you take pictures with the expectation that they'll be what you're looking for SOOC (Straight Out Of the Camera) and sometimes not. I've been shooting some images with the intent of post-processing them further. For example, I did the following one just to capture the cloud movement using StarStaX.

Bonus! I didn't expect StarStaX to do what it did to the tree to the right (it was moving in the wind between frames). Not enough of it in the picture, so I did some work in Photoshop to expand its presence. Then I thought the image needed some texture so I used the Paper Texture Pro extension in  Photoshop. 

When I was out on the ATV the other day, I came across this iron and wood bench. I thought it might be a suitable subject for putting on a black background (still writing the tutorial!), so I shot it and post-processed it using techniques I'll share in the eBook. The chapter will be called, "It's not just for flowers" and it's giving me some ideas about other subjects to seek out!

And finally, this one. I saw these great clouds while driving to Haliburton the other day, and the first thing I had in mind was a StarStaX merge. I remembered this spot on Highway 118, stopped and got set up. Then along came this paddler.  This is a 5-shot HDR merge, colours masked back and muted and again, painted using the Topaz Simplify plug-in. The StarStaX merge? Didn't work, but I know why...

PS: when I did that shot, I discovered that I had developed some dust spots on my sensor. Time to try the new Sensor cleaning gel stick I bought. I've been using a sensor pen until now. We'll see how it turns out!

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