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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