Monday, January 30, 2017

Are you Unconsciously Competent?


Where are you at?

I came across something today that brings back my old days in management. I haven't thought about it for years and not until just now in connection with my photography. It bears repeating.
The Hierarchy of Competence
(graphic © faczen)

Whenever you learn a new skill you follow this path (quoted from Wikipedia):

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

This applies to all kinds of skills. Business and work skills, life skills, personal relationships.
When I think about it, I wonder if I've ever really reached a pure stage 4 in any discipline. I'm pretty close to it but I still have to consciously think about it sometimes. I'm often at that level shooting landscape and travel photography, or post-processing with Lightroom and Photoshop. Many years ago I also used to be at that level playing racquetball and pistol shooting. Maybe writing. Before that, in mathematics and theoretical physics. Maybe not the last one, because those aren't right-brained activities.
I've never broken level 3 skiing and motorcycling, except on rare occasions. My computer skills are there too. I've never exceeded level 1 or 2 when I'm painting or drawing or playing keyboard or guitar.
So why do I think this is important? Knowing where I am is essential before I know where I want to be and what I'm capable of reaching. For instance, I admit that I will never be a competent musician. It makes me think about where I should expend my energy. What's important to me and what I can logically accomplish in the time I have left. Eye opening.

So where are you? What do you do well? What do you want to do well? What do you have fun doing but you'll never be good at it?

If you want to learn more about it, Google is your friend...

If you haven't gone yet...

You have until February 12th to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario's "Mystical Landscapes" exhibit. Go.

I'm not a museum person. And as my friends know, I abhor cities and it's a stretch for me to venture "south of the 401". But I really wanted to see this exhibit. It featured original paintings by Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe, van Gogh, Gaugin, Edvard Munch and even Fred Varley!

I'm trying to be brief here, but I can't. I have to explain that I had the same appreciation that I did when I went to Kleinburg and saw the Ansel Adams exhibit. Or looked at the Group of Seven originals. Speaking of the Group of Seven, the AGO has a Huge exhibit. In fact the whole place is Huge (no, my real name isn't Donald). I spent 3 hours there. I wish I had 3 days. By the way, the lighting and the presentation was exquisite. Sometimes you'd look at a painting and say, "that positively GLOWS!".

I was going to buy the catalogue book at the shop at the exit. I didn't. I should have, because I would have liked to read some of the analysis and history behind the paintings but I didn't because looking at paintings in a book and seeing the real thing are completely different things. When I look at a painting and see how the artist varied the brush strokes and chose the colours, it gives me an appreciation for why the artist made those choices. Looking at a printed picture (or even a full-size art print), you don't get that. You can appreciate the compositional choices, maybe get a feel for the overall tone, but not the blood and sweat that went into the making of the painting.
Two interesting side thoughts. When I was there (mid-week, afternoon) it wasn't busy but there were still many people there. I overheard conversations that I didn't understand at all ("see the expression of loneliness in this image? It's a result of the shape of that curve on the left and the way he toned the colours of the sky into the water...", or "Lismer should have known better. He should have used the darker cadmium yellow at the top and blended it into the pale colour at the bottom. What was he thinking?") LOL. I have no clue. 
But the second thought was this: I think part of the reason I appreciate looking at the originals vs. prints is that the detail appeals to my left brain. The more I think about it, the more I realize how I haven't really left that behind. I know I shouldn't, but I'm thinking about the mechanics of making this art and not the concepts and expressions. I have a long way to go. Besides, the artist him/herself is virtually standing there right beside you looking at how much you appreciate their picture. There's this 'aura'.
I've never appreciated the works of Lawren Harris or Arthur Lismer or Emily Carr until now. I liked Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, Kreighoff is not my style, but seeing their work in real life... damn, I wish I were younger and could spend more time studying these masters.

Refer back to my "Unconscious Competence" article at the top. I can't paint or draw. But I sure am going to keep trying because I really want to. Harvey, I'll be back.

So GO. Even if you miss this exhibit, the AGO is a phenomenal place. So is the McMichael in Kleinburg. Make the time.

another peeve... people misusing words. I frequently read "I love bokeh", when they mean "I love how the photographer used a shallow depth of field so that there are out of focus points in the image".

Folks, bokeh means the way a lens renders out-of-focus points of light. You can't "love bokeh". You can say, "I love how the bokeh looks in this picture...". There's good bokeh and there's bad bokeh. Good bokeh is an even, fuzzy circle. Bad bokeh can look like a donut. Generally speaking, the quality of the bokeh is directly related to how much you spent on the lens!

Like saying, "it was so fun" (it was so MUCH fun. Fun is a noun. It can be used as an adjective but not a predicate adjective, it needs to be modified!). I guess it's something being added to the vernacular. Can you use "Photoshop" as a verb? Or "Google"? "Let me Google that for you!"

I've gone to the Dark Side.

My laptop died. OK, not strictly true, the video card or something in the computer died. Here's what the screen looks like:

Yeah, that dark band in the middle shouldn't be there. And the colour balancing is gone.

My desktop has been exhibiting signs of failure for a long time. I was going to replace it but that would leave me without a functioning laptop. So I decided to use the laptop as a desktop (an external monitor plugged into it works fine) and buy a new laptop. I bit the bullet and got a Mac.

So my new laptop is a 2014 MacBook Pro 15" Retina with a 2.8 GHz i7 quad processor turbo boosted to 3.7 GHz, 16Gb of RAM, 1 Tb SSD and a Nvidia GT750 video card with 2Gb of VRAM. It's screaming fast and will run anything I can throw at it. This computer will be my dedicated Photoshop and Lightroom machine, with an attached 27" monitor, external keyboard, Wacom tablet and external hard drives. 

It fits nicely on the roll-top desk I inherited. The external drives are safe in the cubby holes. Cables aren't run properly yet, there's a way to snake them through the desk. The editing setup will sit on a large pine table off camera right. I'm just waiting for a USB hub that should arrive on Monday to hook everything up. 

The new 2016 MacBooks are one step better but they're at least $1000 more and they come without any directly usable ports! There are two 'USB-C' ports and you're supposed to buy dongles to connect stuff, adding even more cost and complexity (there's a hysterically funny video on YouTube, here). And your apps show up on a touchbar above the keyboard instead of docked at the bottom of the screen. So if you use it with external monitor and keyboard, now what?


I can't do a blog post without pictures, right? I haven't shot much, because I've been trying to configure the new computer. I did head out to try to shoot the Pond Hockey Championships this afternoon: who's ever heard of a two-day event that was on Friday/Saturday and not Sunday? So I headed over to the ice races in Minden. Here are a few images, edited on the new Mac (but without the big monitor. I have to admit that Retina screen is awesome!)

I like shooting the start of a race with a long lens straight downrange from the starting line. They're all lined up in two neat rows then it's as if you had a cockroach infestation and suddenly turned on the lights! They all spread out, jostling for position. I had been approached by the driver of #185 before the race: she told me that her husband was driving car #128 and they were one and two on the starting grid and hoped I would get a picture of them together. I'm not sure but I think #128 won the race in the end. 

The spinning tires of the cars on the ice throw up a mist of ice particles, so it's hard to see any cars other than the leaders. It's also hard for the drivers to see, so windshield wipers are constantly going and every car has a bright light in its rear window. In this case, the cars are shod with rubber only – no studded tires.

The "DeHaze Filter" tool in Lightroom CC is MADE for this. Other than tweaking the black levels (the DeHaze filter fills in the blacks too much), that's the only difference between these two pictures. 

Drivers swap tires before each heat. Sometimes they're allowed to use studs, sometimes just rubber. In previous years they were allowed 'racing studs' in certain races but they rip up the track too badly, so they've been banned now. In the past, a weekend of racing would eat through a foot of ice surface. With this year's mild weather, I doubt there was much more than half that thickness on the track. 

One lap in, the cars are starting to spread out. See the ice fog I'm talking about? 

#128 is starting to build a lead, but #117 is still right there with him off camera at the left. 

In Ice Racing, cars get into and out of all kinds of crazy positions as they spin, slide and drift around the corners. The 'rubber only' races seem a bit sedate, but heats with studded tires have cars screaming into corners at over 100 kph! You can tell which cars have been at this for a while — they're all beat up! 

And sometimes they don't make it! Here car #11 drove halfway up the embankment in turn 8 just before the start/finish straight. If a car gets stuck, the driver stays in the vehicle until the end of the race. A caution flag goes up for that corner but the racers are free to do their thing after they clear the obstacle. 

Ice racing happens every Saturday and Sunday in Minden in the winter. It can be cold, so dress warmly! It's free for spectators and if you make friends with the drivers, you may even get to ride in the passenger seat of a race car during a race (you have to have a DOT/SNELL approved helmet. My motorcycle helmet isn't SNELL approved so I've never managed to get a ridealong).

As I said, I haven't shot a lot of pictures this week, with a trip to Toronto to go to the AGO and pick up my new computer, a day at the dentist (Dr. Ron's back from Antarctica. Let's see if I can get him to give me a sample picture to use in an upcoming post). Then all that 'chair' time getting the computer set up. I have to give it a name, by the way. My old laptop was called "LilGuy" but I'd like to find a more creative name for this one. Suggestions? Hit me with them in the comments!

It's been too warm to shoot freezing soap bubbles. It snowed a little bit but the snowflakes weren't too photogenic. Most of them were just featureless little spots or clumps, but occasionally you could find one that showed its unique crystal structure. 

I messed with this one using Topaz Glow and Star Effects. I didn't get the real crisp focus I was looking for but as long as it keeps snowing, I'll keep trying! 

OK, I lied. Well not really... I woke up this morning to -16°C and thought, "Hmmm. Soap bubbles." They're pretty easy although getting one to survive anywhere except on the tie wrap has eluded me so far.  Watching the crystals grow inside is cool!

Unprocessed. Not even cropped, except I added a touch of DeHaze to bring up the blacks and contrast. 

And here's the same shot with a touch of Topaz Glow and Star Effects! A 5 minute edit. 

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fantasy Worlds

I was looking at the bubble pictures and they looked like little worlds. Well worlds need a sun, and a moon, and stars... and sometimes the life forms on the world try to escape... a Haiku write, I will!

Strain, ungainly wings!
Space-time warped by bubble worlds
Unlikely escape 

Gales of November is back!

If you missed it last year, here's your chance! The Gales of November is a long weekend at a five-Star lodge at Wawa on the North shore of Lake Superior. A maximum of 12 photographers will enjoy the landscapes, seascapes, rocky shores and wild weather of the Gales of November on Lake Gitchigumi (the native name for Lake Superior) along with great accommodations, home-cooked foods and take their photography up a level due to interaction with the others and some gentle guidance and workshops from me.

The Rock Island Lodge. A 360° pano from the lake side. 

You don't need to be a pro, you don't have to have thousands of dollars of gear, but it's a good idea to be intimately familiar with whatever camera you bring. Let's talk!

Did you know the Munich Oktoberfest is held in September? That's because they can't wait! So we can't wait: the Gales of November workshop will be held October 26th through October 29th!

The 2016 crew! Picture courtesy of Jim Camelford. 

Lake Superior's unique weathered rocks
Visit the website at But also be sure to tell me if you're interested so I can get you on the list for updates and new information about the workshop. Don't worry: no spam will come your way.

Book now! Don't miss out again!


I was thinking about hardware and people's obsession about brands and ever-increasing technology. 

I was sitting here editing my Algonquin pictures from yesterday and at the risk of making a heretical statement, I was basically shooting on full Automatic.

Now before you jump on that, I'm not talking about the camera settings! "I" was on full auto, not the camera! My message is that you have to know your equipment well enough so that you hardly have to give it a thought. Here's what I mean. Consider the "Icing Sugar" image below. 

I knew that the detail and texture of the frosted trees were the subject of the image. To capture them, I needed high resolution. My D800 is a high res camera (but I REALLY want a medium format Hasselblad or Phase One!) but to get higher res, I wanted to stitch multiple images together. So I left the Tamron lens on. 

I know that with this lens, I need a high shutter speed for sharp images. Even though I was only shooting at 150mm, I left the camera at 1/800 second. I knew that if the lens was wide open, it wouldn't be as sharp as stopped down a little, that's why I went to f/7.1. I know that the camera performs very well at high ISO and I wasn't concerned about noise in this image. 

So I was able to make these images without giving it much conscious thought.

Every image, whether it's a landscape or a portrait or a tabletop macro, needs to be composed properly. I knew that I could crop (since I was going to end up with an ridiculously high res image) so I wasn't as concerned about the edges as I was about making sure that tree just left of centre – which was my main subject – needed to be all there and in the right place. I knew that the colour accents of the orange oak leaves were needed to grab the viewer.  I knew that the horizon had to be level but not in the middle. 

THAT's what I needed to concentrate on, not the mechanics. So in a way it didn't matter what camera I had in my hand, as long as I knew it intimately. That's my message: you can't let your right brain loose unless you put your left brain on fully automatic. 

Here's the image:
From a visit to Algonquin Park on a dreary day in January. Algonquin is beautiful in ANY kind of weather.

I spent a lot of time post-processing this image. The final image is somewhat close to what I previsualized. The basics:

■ this is nine images stitched together. The image size is close to 130 megapixels and the TIFF file is over 2Gb in size before compression. Stitching was done using Microsoft Research's "ICE".
■ The images were shot with a Nikon D800 and a Tamron 150-600mm lens (at 150mm). I deliberately did not mount my wide angle to shoot this because I was planning to stitch multiple images together to get the detail level. Exif: 1/800 sec at f/7.1, ISO 2500.
■ The pictures were taken early afternoon on a dreary day in Algonquin Park, somewhere near the west end of Highway 60.
■ I had to remove some ugly hydro wires and a pole. I did most of the heavy lifting with careful use of Photoshop's spot healing brush 
■ I experimented with a number of plugins and effects. In the end I discarded most of them but Topaz Clarity and a hi-pass filter in PS were needed to retain the detail. But it wasn't until I applied Topaz Impression 2 with the "crayon scratch" preset as a basis that the image gelled for me.

Of course what you see here on the blog is a mere shadow of the real thing. I actually reduced the image size to 20 Mp before producing this framed version.

More Images of Algonquin Park

Yesterday, Larry Murphy and I trekked up to the Park. We didn't stray off the 'corridor' so we only saw the usual denizens, but we had a great day and got some super pictures. So many that it was hard to pare them back, so here's a selection for your enjoyment:

As we came into the park, it looked as though the trees were coated with rime ice, but on closer inspection, it was more like snow. I think the snow on the branches melted and re-froze in place. 

You know me, I can't leave well enough alone! Brightened with LAB colour then a Topaz Impression treatment to make this magical shot. My favourite of the day, I think! 

Our friendly Pine Marten at Mew Lake. I had lots of shots, this one was one of my favourites because of the eye contact! 

On to the Visitor Centre. Park staff had dragged a moose carcass (car collision kill, I think) out behind the centre and it attracted all kinds of predators from wolves to fishers and martens, foxes, ravens... It was really far away. This is a full-frame 600mm shot, not cropped.  

At the bird feeder behind the Visitor Centre. The blue jays and chickadees were there in force, as well as these Evening Grosbeaks and American Goldfinch 

American Goldfinch in non-breeding winter plumage.  

Back West we went. We drove up our usual road but it was only plowed up to a certain point. And right there, at the end, was papa fox waiting for us!

Again, I like this picture of him because of the eye contact. This fox is too accustomed to people. We went for a walk up the road and Papa walked along beside us like a dog! 

The sugar coated trees were mainly in the western part of the park. We went as far East as Opeongo Road, where it was much less obvious. I thought it might be because it was melting during the day but this shot was also on the way home mid-afternoon.  

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Monday, January 09, 2017

It's winter, for sure!

Today's blog is just about some creative pictures. No words of wisdom to bore you with! I hadn't picked up my camera since October...

Blog Banner replaced today. Previous one copied here for archiving 

Golden Hour. I went for a walk around sunset on New Year's Day and took this HDR of a neighbour's bunkie into the setting sun. I did a fair bit of post-processing, including Topaz Simplify and a couple of passes through Topaz Impression to make it look like what I saw in my mind.

Snowflake Magic. Playing around with Topaz Star Effects.  This doesn't compare with some of the shots I've seen but I kind of like the effect. I was being lazy, shooting handheld with the 105 macro, no extension tubes but I put on the ringlight. Most of the snowflakes were unstructured little blobs but there were a few crystals. 1/100 @ f/11, ISO 6400.

Black Capped Chickadee in the snow. There are so many of them hanging around my feeders but they're so cute I couldn't resist. I used Topaz Clarity and deNoise and I'm quite pleased with how sharp this came out. I shot it with the Tamron 150-600mm at 600mm, 1/250 @ f/8, ISO 1800. Usually I can't do well under 1/1000 second so I surprised myself today. 

"And so it begins". Large amounts of snow do NOT make for good hard water. So whoever wanted to get the jump on the ice fishing season
took his life into his hands going out there. Not a great or safe idea. 

The Rock Cut at Miner's Bay in a snow squall 

"Winter in the Highlands". This house was right where I was standing just past the Rock Cut.  

On the way to the dentist on Friday (don't ask...) I left early to seek out Snowy Owls. ALL of the snowy owls I saw that day are in this picture.
Oh, you can't see them either? 

Again, lots of invisible Snowy Owls. But I was taken by these greenhouses and thought I'd turn them into a drawing of sorts. 

This started life as a frozen soap bubble. But with the help of Photoshop and some Topaz plugins, it became "Bubble World"!  

Here's another one.  A little different treatment.

Here's the Straight-out-of-Camera picture for the second image. If you want to try this at home, wait for it to get cold (these were shot around -10°C, or about +15°F) and get or mix up some bubble liquid. I tried about 1/3 dish detergent and 2/3 water and then changed to liquid hand soap. I think to get the internal crystals, you need to add some sort of sugar syrup: I used maple syrup, all I had on hand. Then with your camera ready, blow some bubbles. Most of them won't last long enough, so keep trying! I used a 105mm macro lens shooting at arm's length handheld, 1/160 sec at f/11, ISO 6400. 

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