Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy US Thanksgiving! I said to my US friends. And to the vast number of young turkeys who were orphaned today, "I'm sorry for your loss". LOL


I want to give a shout out about one of my favourite accessories, the TriggerTrap Mobile kit. Sometimes you find a device or an app that's brilliant, and this is one of those. I've supplemented my remote triggering devices for my DSLR with their kit. It gets around any and all limitations the camera has, and it makes it dead easy to do timelapses, star trails, even simple self-timer and remote shutter actuation.

This is exactly how I use it on my camera (although this isn't my photo, it comes from TriggerTrap. I would need an extra camera to get this picture and I can't even use my iPhone if it's in the picture!). I control my camera through my iPhone. 

If you go to the TriggerTrap site, you'll find out that the unit has two parts: the one that connects to the phone through the audio port, and the end that connects to the camera. Just tell them which camera you have and it will tell you which version you need. I'm not going to give you all the details, because their website is wonderful and they tell it better than I do. Here's a tip: click on "Inspiration" at the top of their screen for some great tips and tricks! (or just click here to go there directly).

Now here's two tips of my own:
  • TriggerTrap cannot access the Apple iPhone screen brightness or switch it off. So to conserve battery, I turn the brightness all the way down when I'm ready to start. Problem is, even with it turned down, I run out of iPhone battery after about an hour and a half. I have ordered an external battery pack for the phone (like $6.49 on eBay from the Far East...). You'll need it if you want to do long timelapses.
Oh, and you might want to throw a hat over the phone to prevent its light from invading your images. Don't forget to cover your viewfinder. 
  • I was having trouble figuring out where to put the phone, I didn't think letting it dangle off the tripod was a great idea. So I went on eBay and within moments, I found a mount, much like the one in the picture above, that fits in the hotshoe on the camera. Ex- Hong Kong or China, shipping included, it sells for the princely sum of $0.99. 'nuff said?
Anyway, it's a great product, very reasonably priced, and I don't hesitate to recommend it to all my faithful readers. By the way, they're offering free shipping worldwide until the end of 2015. Here's the link again.

One more shout out to 3LeggedThing

My replacement tripod leg arrived yesterday. "Brian" is now walking on his own three legs! In case you're new around here, the back story is that I had tripped and almost fallen down on winter ice, saved only by my superb carbon fibre tripod. It's strong (weighs in at only around 1.3kg including the ball head) but is not really designed to support 270 lbs (8 kg or 17 lbs rating). I bent a couple of leg sections that made it hard to collapse. Still worked, though!

Anyway, too long a story. Cut to the chase: 3LT sent me replacement parts at no charge even though I wanted to pay them. But in the end, although we did everything we could, we couldn't save the leg. So they just sent me a new one. Free. Am I getting special treatment because I write about them? No, I don't think so. They are just 110% committed to their customers. You can see this attitude if you watch this little video on their website. They're as off-the-wall as it implies.

Anyway, pay them a visit. You'll be impressed.

PS: They just announced pre-orders are open for the new Trey Ratcliff/Peak Designs Everyday Messenger bag. Not cheap but this looks like a perfect product and you get what you pay for. Check it out in their USA store.

A quickie from Topaz Labs

It's Black Friday time. You know what that means!

Topaz Labs just announced a BLACK FRIDAY sale: 50% off the whole package. If you already have some of the apps, you can get 50% off an upgrade, between November 25 and November 30. Use this link to get to the Topaz site: and enter "BLACKFRIDAY2015" in the coupon field at checkout. Note: their newer products require some graphics horsepower to run. You should download the free trial to make sure it works before committing. But get it all done before the 30th if you want the discount!

Picture Time!

I'll start with this one:

Last time I posted the original of this picture. I've had a chance to work on it, using Impression and the new Texture Effects and I have to say I'm really quite satisfied with how it turned out. I can picture it as a large scale canvas print. Hope you like it too!

The camera club went out and shot "steel wool" the other night. For those who don't know what it is, you set fire to a ball of ultra-fine steel wool and swing it around on the end of a tether while doing a time exposure. Thanks to Mike Hamilton for being the "swinger"! We had a turnout of about 10 club members and EVERYONE got outstanding images. Here are a few examples:

Mike stood on top of the stone fountain at Head Lake Park in Haliburton. When I looked up, the moon peeked out from behind the clouds and I got this shot of him silhouetted against the moon, before he started to light the steelwool. This needs to be made into a real painting, it's my first project when next I pick up my brushes and oil paints! Blow it up fullscreen.

After he lit it, from the same location. By the way, I really wanted to shoot this with the wide angle lens from this distance, which put me in Kathy's field of view, for which I apologize. She actually got some good pictures with me in the falling flames: I said it adds to the image!  

Out on the flat lawn area, this picture looks like a giant umbrella of flame. 

And my favourite one, you know me, I have to mess with them in post-processing! and it burns, burns, burns...

A whole bunch of painted effects were used to achieve this impressionistic oil painted look. I used Photoshop, Nik HDR Efex, Impression and Texture Effects and more!

I have some great news on an upcoming project, which I should be able to reveal next week, and some pictures of a very different subject, keep an eye out for the next blog posting!

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

If I only save one life...

Do you use protection?

What do you think I'm going to talk about? Latex things? Wrong.

This blog is about photography. Did you think I was going to talk about using filters on your lens? Nah, that subject has been beaten to death (bottom line: 50% of photographers I surveyed use UV filters on their lenses. The other half are smart enough to know that (a) digital sensors are not sensitive to UV like film was, (b) the filters, especially cheap ones [under $100] degrade picture quality and cause excessive lens flare, (c) you're not protecting a $2500 lens, you're protecting the front glass which is factory replaceable at reasonable cost, (d) a lens hood provides much better protection and (e) camera stores make HUGE profits on filters. They buy them for $1 and sell them for $20 or $30, that's why the salesman tells you that you need one. LOL)

No, I'm talking about your computer. Background: I have a friend whose computer was just eaten by a mean and nasty virus or trojan (trojan. protection. hmmm.). I'm not going to lecture him again about clicking on unknown links in email, even email that seems to come from someone you know. I already did. I love this guy but he's so incredibly naïve... and there's no sense in making him feel worse. I'm going to make a few points and if they're really obvious to you, then feel free to skip down to the next subject. But if not... then at least think about it.

  • You need to have backups. When I said to my friend, "just reload your Quickbooks from your backup..." I had a feeling... Now some of us don't have the resolve to stick to a routine, or the resources to do this perfectly, but at least try!
  • The 3-2-1 rule says have 3 copies of your data on at least 2 different media and at least 1 copy off-site. That means for example, hard disk, flash drive, DVD, cloud. Go buy a couple more external hard drives (they're cheap!) and keep one in your safe deposit box at the bank. Regularly make an extra backup of your data and rotate that drive to the box. If your house burns down or is burglarized, your life's work is still safe.
For the record, I have some of my stuff on a hard drive at my mom's apartment in Thornhill, but it's been a while since I rotated a new copy there. My really critical files (not my pictures: my financials, etc) are backed up to the Cloud via Dropbox every couple of days.
by the way, I just saw a new Lexar SDXC card that holds an incredible 512Gb. A TeraByte is only one step away. Incredible. 
  • Keep your virus protection up to date. And check for MalWare as well: the virus programs miss stuff.
I run Microsoft Security Essentials every night at 3am. I also run Malwarebytes (look it up) whenever I think of it. If my computer starts doing silly things, it's my go-to reaction and sometimes, it finds stuff. 
  •  Stop clicking on links in emails. Sure it's easy: "click here to upload the latest update..." but stop and think. Instead, go to the developer's website and search for the update there. It takes an extra effort but it can save you a lot of grief.
The one I've been reluctantly clicking on is the "click here to unsubscribe" link. Every time I do, I wonder if I'm being smart, but I'm so tired of the spam. Do as I say, not as I do!
This subject also came up in an online discussion. Remember, you don't need to have a plan in case your hard drive fails, you need to have a plan for WHEN your hard drive fails, because it's going to.

OK, off my soapbox. If I only saved one life, it was worth it!

I think I figured out why my painting sucks.

I attended some sessions with a talented painter (Harvey Walker) who creates a painting in an hour or two. I just realized that it doesn't work that way for everyone. Mind you, he's got years of experience. I can't just say, "OK, now I'm going to paint those rocks" and an hour later, I'm done.

Here's a link to an essay by Robert Bateman on Painting. He doesn't just slap paint on canvas. It's worth a read if you're an artist (and even if you're not!). I'll wait right here.

I've been trying to "express myself" by just going for it: painting a tree with huge impasto strokes in a few minutes. I finally get that it might not work that way for everyone, especially when I don't know what I'm doing. I'm going to keep trying. Watch this space.

Topaz is about to Rock your World (again!)

It's been quiet down in the land of Topaz Labs. That's because they've been working on something special. Their latest program is Topaz Texture Effects. Here's a quote from them:

"Texture Effects allows users to create a variety of textured, toned, and lighting effects in a fraction of the time it takes in other editing software. The program includes a library of over 150 expertly crafted effects, an extensive collection of texture assets (275+ high-resolution assets!), and instant access to effects other Topaz users have shared with the new Topaz Community. That means no more scouring the web for a look that inspires you. With Texture Effects, inspiration is only a click away!"

example image from Topaz Labs.  

another example image 

...and one more.  

Full disclosure: I haven't worked with it seriously yet, they've just released it and as I write this, the full version isn't even out (by the time you read this, it will be!). As a Topaz Affiliate, they've given me a pre-release version to test. And as an affiliate, I receive some compensation if you purchase it through the links on this blog.
Topaz has put together a bunch of really good effects and ideas. If you've played with Russell Brown's "Paper Textures" inside Photoshop, this goes further. Ditto, Nik (Google) Analog Efex Pro: you can add a world of effects to give your images an antique character and change the mood completely. Oh, and it runs both as plug-ins to the Photoshop suite or standalone.

 But they've also incorporated some of their better tools; their masking brushes work a lot like ReMask. Some of the sliders feel like Impression, but different effects, of course. They've also made it easy to save your own custom effects so you can give a consistent feel to multiple pictures AND they've set up an online cloud community where you can share your effects with the world. Here's a video clip that says it much better than I can.

 All very exciting but caution, this is a high end piece of software, you won't be running it on a lower end computer. System Requirements: Mac OSX 10.8+; Windows 7/8/10 x 64bit + OpenGL 3.2.  And it's HUGE. The download is 1.4Gb! Be prepared. As usual, you can download and try it before buying, to make sure it works on your system. It's a pretty big download, by the way. I think this is going to be one of my go-to plugins when I'm feeling creative and I have a vision how I want an image to feel. 

Here's the link to the Texture Effects page. It's on sale for $49.95 ($20 off) between now and November 20th. Use this coupon code – TEXTUREFX –  at checkout.

UPDATE: I just installed the full version. First impression? It's SICK. It's blown my mind. I figured that a huge program like that was going to be slow on my lousy system but it FLIES. Everything works in real time. Topaz: my hat's off to you!
There's a quick pass at my latest aurora picture at the bottom of this blog.

Dry Spell

I'm in a bit of a dry spell. There are two times of year I don't find inspiring: spring, right after the snow is out and before life returns to the forest, and now, when everything is dead and not yet covered with a blanket of snow. The world has two colours: brown, and grey. To get out of this rut, I need to unleash some other genres. So, people; events; and out comes the light tent to do some macros and still life shots.
I like to cook. 
As a bachelor, one kind of has to! And I like to do it the easy way, especially so that I don't have a big cleanup afterwards. My ideal meal is made in one pot, and uses one plate to eat it! The down side is that it's hard to cook for one, so often either these are two-day meals or I eat too much. Back on my diet as of this morning, I have to shed some of this extra weight. Most people don't agree with how I diet, so I'm not going to elaborate on it.

I also haven't seriously approached photographing these creations, but I will a bit more as winter makes it less hospitable to shoot outside (you have downloaded my "Winter Wonderland" eBook on taking better pictures in winter, right? If not, click that "Newsletter" link at top right and I'll send it to you, free). Where was I.

Oh yes, cooking. In addition to my BBQ, which I use year-round, I've settled on some pretty rugged cooking hardware. I use a lot of cast iron, skillets and pots, but my favourite is my cast aluminium wok. One pot, one meal and it cleans up by rinsing it out (it's never seen soap and nothing sticks!)

Chicken stirfry. Kind of my go-to meal, not fattening and as I said, easy cleanup. My own recipe, I'm not going to make MasterChef Canada with it, but it's easy. 

This one's pretty easy too. Take some chicken, some rice, some broccoli, cream of chicken or mushroom soup, some chicken broth and some shredded cheddar cheese. After pre-cooking the chicken, mix everything together except the cheese and put your trusty cast-iron skillet in the oven for a while. Then add the cheese and eventually turn on the broiler to brown the top. 10 minute prep, 40 minutes to cook, 5 minutes to clean up!

Where'd I get the recipe? Shhh. Google is your friend! By the way, I won't be making this for a while, not until after the diet!

As I said, I'll try to photograph better (these are iPhone shots, no special lighting). The challenge is how to shoot a skillet that's 350°F in the light tent without burning the house down!

I shot this "zombie" picture last weekend using my little ringlight as fill-in flash because my SB-600 flash is dead. It's not very powerful, just adds a touch of highlight and a little catchlight in the eyes. (I did some work in LR to isolate her from the background. The flash wasn't strong enough). I'm amazed at how much texture and detail it adds, though. Theoretically it shouldn't, it should provide flat lighting because it comes directly from the camera. Mystery. Here's proof: 

This is the same shot, zoomed in to 100%. Check out those textures! The catchlight should be much larger, you need to be shooting from closer up, maybe with a wider lens. This was shot with my 105mm prime, 1/250 sec at f/7.1, ISO 400. 

As I said, my flash died: the Nikon SB-600 won't power up. It's happened before, but now it's really toast, I think it's the switches on the back. I ordered a Yongnuo YN-568ex from B&H for only $100 (the Nikons are 4 or 5 times that price!) so let's see how it works out. I'll  post some pix after I get it in a couple of weeks.

I did take the ATV out the other day, but didn't find much inspiration on the trail in the woods. However there was an interesting pastel sunset going on. I forgot my tripod, so this is handheld:

Here's a "selfie" from the same spot:

It's the first week of deer hunting season. I wear my orange vest when out on my ATV this time of year. Without a tripod, I rested my camera on my bag and set the timer to do this shot. In hindsight, that beach has some interesting textures and shadows, but I didn't see it until I got home.

My favourite shot from that afternoon. It's actually the same boat I shot a couple of years ago, covered with a dusting of snow (from a different angle and in fact, facing the other way!), that won a bunch of awards and was published several times. What I like about this one is the subtle colour palette, the strong diagonal and the sunlit board that draws the eye and adds to the story. 

Parting Shot

As usual, I like to save the best for last. Last night, I headed out to shoot the Aurora Borealis: the aurora prediction was extremely high a couple of days ago and still high last night; and we had some clear weather. So out I went! I chose the same spot I've been going to recently, I just like the visibility, North and South, and the shape of the hills. The only thing missing is a foreground subject.

When I first got there, I couldn't see any aurora. Not unusual: the camera sees it a lot better than my eyes. So rather than waste the trip, I turned around and set up a time lapse sequence on the Milky Way. Not the best time of year for it, the galactic centre isn't above the horizon, but still...

A "little" post-processing! I liked it until I applied the Watercolour filter in Impression. Now I love it! 

No visible aurora, but there was something else going on: the Taurids meteor showers. It's a bit different from the other ones, because the meteors are bigger and fatter than most, so the trails are brighter and light up the sky! Of course when I pointed the camera North, I saw one to the East. So I pointed it East. Oh, there's another one, to the West! I didn't really get a still photo (one...wait for it!) but I did count several meteorite events on a time lapse, taken over about 45 minutes.

You know how the Seinfeld show is about "nothing"? So this video is also about nothing. Look carefully, you'll see half a dozen airplanes and seven meteorites. Here's the link.

Also while I was out there filming, I was treated to a 10-minute serenade from a pack of howling wolves. And something big jumped in the water right beside me! It was a fabulous evening.

Here's what the eye saw:

and here's what it looked like after a bit of Lightroom editing:

Since I enjoy creating impressionist images, here's what I came up with:

Impression/Liquid Pencil, then I added some Paper Textures in Photoshop (can't wait to try this again with the new Topaz Texture Effects)!  Then I though, "Hmmm. Foreground object". That's what Photoshop is for! And look! There's a meteorite trail to the left. Click the picture to view it fullscreen.

First quick pass using Topaz Texture Effects. Mind blowing. 

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Sunday, November 01, 2015

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I went out to the Haliburton Zombie Walk. Last year I got some great Zombie pictures; not so much this time. First of all, there were a couple of hundred participants last year, this time only twenty or so. That's partly because (I think) (a) it was at Pinestone instead of Haliburton Head Lake, (b) they made it an all-day affair, with a party at night (which I skipped), (c) if you went to they hadn't updated it from last year and it still said the walk was on November 1 instead of October 31 (in the promo videos on the home page. The correct date was inside the site), and (d) there was at least one other competing event. I know there was a party at the Red Umbrella Inn too, and I heard "lots of zombies were there".

So I didn't find anyone taking the event seriously; makeup and costumes were a shadow of what they were last year. Frankly, I couldn't find much that I felt like shooting.

Zombies don't live in the same space-time continuum we do so they're hard to photograph since they move in and out of another subset of the 11 dimensional multiverse. In-camera multiple exposure with a single one overlaid. 

However what they did do right was the "Terror from Wonderland Road" setup underground at Pinestone. Really well done! Photography was somewhat of a challenge, since it was DARK in there! I did get this one, though:

Bloody Terror from the Deep. As I said, it was dark. This shot was with my wide angle (objects are closer than they appear!! Bwa-ha-ha). For my photographer friends, 1/15 sec at f/2.8, ISO 6400. Some Lightroom and Photoshop, including added textures, then I was fortunate to have Topaz Glow and Impression to bring out the details. 

That's going on my Top 25 gallery page today. Now I have to find one to delete!

Musings: the retiree's dilemma

I read a couple of articles recently about "the best places to retire". It's a dilemma and I don't know what to do. I perceive that eventually I will probably have to move, but don't know where.

For many years I had a dream of sitting at a computer, writing the great Canadian novel while looking out the window overlooking a beautiful lake. What I have is not perfect: the window could be bigger, the lake could be closer, the novel...well I'm still working on that. I didn't envision being alone. I didn't think that photography would figure into my life to the extent that it has. But essentially I have realized my dream. Realistically, I have to start thinking about some other factors, health and mobility needs to be considered.

If you don't know me personally, I currently live in an almost-lakefront-property (I'm across the road) on 12-Mile Lake, just North of Minden, Ontario in the Haliburton Highlands. I moved up here from the Toronto area in 2007. I like the area, but I'm not too fussy about the town: it's small, has limited resources and except for emergency services, has no hospital facilities. There's a huge arts community up here, though.

I despise the thought of living in a city. I won't go "South of the 401" unless I must. But I may be forced to do so because medical facilities and services are non-existent out here. Is it inevitable that I'll need them? Well there are really only two possibilities, if I drop dead, then no. If I get sick or if creeping ailments get worse, then yes. By the way, NOT YET. Maybe I'm just being paranoid. But I should think ahead.

Suburban Toronto is probably prohibitively expensive, with even a small condo apartment going for $400K. Unless I just rent... which is not totally out of the question.  Ditto Niagara-on-the-Lake, Kelowna BC. Or anywhere outside of Canada (medical insurance issues). Some towns with good facilities are not appealing: Lindsay, Elliot Lake, etc. Five years ago I might have thought about Newfoundland (I love the place) but realistically, winters... and if I'm less able to enjoy nature? I'm thinking about Huntsville. Maybe... but I'll need to do some on-site research.

As I re-read what I wrote above, it comes across somewhat fatalistic. It's not like that: just musing about what my next step might be.

It's a dilemma.

SmugMug Gallery Update

I watched a video stream from Terry White (Adobe, Lightroom guru) and he gave me an idea. He has an online gallery that shows his favourite images. "Why not," I thought. "I'll make one too". I did, and put it on my Smugmug site.

The premise is this: I have thousands of images, and obviously I have favourites. These are not necessarily my BEST shots, they're the ones I like the best right now. So I created a gallery called "Top 25" (actually it's the top 24 images plus a little video: so it's my "Double Dirty Dozen plus One").  When I take another picture that I like as well or better, I'll upload it and delete one picture to keep the number the same. That's going to be tough...

Anyway, pop over and see my favourites. Here's the link. I'll wait right here.
I dare you...

Can you stand another fox picture?

I chose to show you this one despite what some people think is a distracting branch because I think it tells a story and it frames the animal. The more challenging branch was actually the one that passes in front of his ears, which I gently cloned partway out. The other fox pictures are more like 'portraits'. To me, this one says (a) it really was shot in the wild; and (b) the fox thinks he's hiding from me and then as he realizes he's been seen, he gives me "the stare". Although his stance doesn't say it, his expression says that he's poised to run away.

I rendered this one a little dark in order to draw the viewer's eyes to the fox's muzzle. I brought out as much texture in his coat as I dared. Almost all the editing was done in Lightroom, just a little Photoshop to do the cloning and add some clarity.

Custom iPhone case

Remember I said I had to fiddle with the iPhone 6 Tough case I had ordered, in order to accommodate the audio plug? The new one arrived, with the same problem. This time I tried using my Dremel tool but those who know me know that I'm useless with tools, and I made a mess again.

Here's the new case. I love it! 

But the audio plug doesn't fit right. 

And this is the mess I made. 

RedBubble acknowledged the fault this time, sent me a credit, and said they would address it, but made no promises. Fair enough.

PS: my pillow arrived too. It's awesome! I'm going to order another one with a fox image on it. One for each end of the couch!

I really have to give props to 3 Legged Thing, the company in England that made my carbon fibre tripod. If you've been a longtime reader, you might remember that I tripped and almost fell, saved by the tripod which isn't really designed to support 270 lbs! So I broke a couple of bits. The tripod still worked, but not perfectly. Then I did a stupid thing, putting Ron's 600mm f/4 on a gimbal mount on this lightweight tripod. I broke the column. Full disclosure: MY FAULT. It's strong, but that was way overboard.

So I wrote to them and I got a surprise overseas phone call from Danny, 3LT's president. They then shipped me the parts I needed, free of charge. Despite the fact that it was my fault. I fixed it up but not perfectly because I hadn't recognized that I had bent another segment. I wrote again a couple of days ago asking if I could buy a whole new leg assembly. They refused to sell it to me. They're sending it to me for free.

This is the kind of company you want to deal with. Not only do they make OUTSTANDING products, but I can't think of any outfit I've dealt with that is so responsive to their customers. You can buy 3LeggedThing tripods via their website (if you're in North America, choose their US store at the top). You can contact them directly here. Do it. Tell Dave I sent you.

By the way, 3LT's stuff isn't cheap. Not the most expensive, either, but the Brian (named for Queen's Brian May – look up the story on their website. Bit of a search but worth it!) carbon fibre tripod and AirHed will set you back about $500. But then it's virtually weightless, super strong and made by photographers for photographers. My only quibble is that you have to be diligent about locking all the friction nuts and there are lots of them, the price you pay because it folds down from 'this' small to 'this' tall (higher than I can reach!).

If money is no object, then the names "Gitzo" and "ReallyRightStuff" are the way to go. But 3LT makes as good or better tripods. If you want an inexpensive field tripod, look at the MeFoto products. But the build quality isn't the same. And then there's the customer service...

Everyone should watch movies

And TV shows and commercials... as photographers, it's humbling to see what the REAL cinematographers (and photographers) do. We all seem to try to emulate them, and of course most of us are doing it on our own, with limited equipment and budgets and resources. But not only do they have perfect lighting and attention to detail, but the use of composition to convey a message or mood is inspiring.

The other night I watched "Road to Perdition" (again!), with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. The photography was mind-blowing, especially some of the black-and-white special effects scenes. It's a good movie, but by all means, watch it for the cinematography.

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