Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Next Time on an Airplane

A while back, I was flying to a conference in Chicago. Leaving Salt Lake City and climbing out over the Wasatch Front, I was sitting in the window seat I usually prefer and fondling my little newly purchased Nikon 1 v2. As we traversed the eastern Rockies in late afternoon, I wondered how the camera would "perceive" the fabulous landscape sliding by slowly below. Would it be sharp enough, even though shooting through the plane's windows? Could I adjust for haze without a filter? Would the compositions even be interesting? Undaunted, I started shooting with a 10-100 mm zoom, the equivalent of 27-270 mm given the crop factor of 2.7x.

Yesterday, almost five years later (!), I was experimenting with these aerial shots in Lightroom and Photoshop. Being retired is great! Anyway, I was quite pleased to see some interesting possibilities emerge and wanted to share the results with you. So, the next time you are on an airplane with nothing to do, dig out your camera; you never know!


Eastern Utah
Nikon 1 v2, Nikkor 10-100 @ 34 mm, 1/500 sec, f/8, ISO 200

Flaming Gorge Reservoir
Nikon 2 v2, Nikkor 10-100 @ 22 mm, 1/400 sec, f/8, ISO 200

Chipped Flint
Nikon 1 v2, Nikkor 10-100 @ 30 mm, 1/400 sec, f/8, ISO 200
This last one reminded me of an Indian arrowhead, which is why I chose the title. The late afternoon light from a setting sun aided and abetted the contrast and texture of what might have been an otherwise ordinary formation. Recalling floating somewhere over the Rockies, I think of how many times I have flown above this land and basically ignored the wonders over which I sailed. Seeing. That's the beginning of photography. Without it there is no vision. And without a vision, people perish.

Afterthought: I have tried taking photos with my phone. From an airplane, I have yet to achieve success with this strategy although I have made others images that I found satisfying. Part of it is the lenses of the phone cameras and part of it is being able to shoot in RAW format because, I think, the post processing can be somewhat extreme. Of course, without trying, who knows?

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Touch the Sky Revisited Revisited

Learning from Mistakes

Just a few days ago, I published a story about revisiting an image from 2012. Thanks to all for your comments, both posted and private! Some of those were somewhat critical, which is great; such cause me to look closer, make fewer assumptions, and visualize more accurately. That being said, I knew the revisited image was a mistake when I posted it. I also realized I should not have done so and am reminded of something my friend and photographic mentor Mark Alberhasky taught me: Never post an image unless you are satisfied as to its perfection. I wanted to share what I learned from this mistake.

Most photography blogs will share a picture and then explain how this or that result was achieved. In other words, what went right assuming the reader would like to duplicate their results. Here, I want to help anyone interested to avoid my mistakes! They are numerous, by the way, but then I wax philosophical too much methinks!

First, I had started with what I knew was an imperfect file, less for exposure and more for composition. I knew I had unavoidable lens flare, but I needed to move the tripod to reposition the flare so it would be easier to deal with; I was lazy. Further, because it was a composite, I failed to align the frames accurately, which led to halo artifacts. It also needlessly made blending of the three different layers harder. And I tried to composite overtly extreme exposures, really degrees of contrast. The shadows were blocked and the contrast between the sky and the "finger" touching the sky (a critical subject I think!) became diminished for several reasons. But at the heart of all this was the fact that I was in a hurry. I was excited about where the image was leading me and I couldn't wait to share the "dialog" with you; I rushed it. Sloppy and lazy in retrospect.

Knowing I had shamed myself publicly­čśü, I put my nose back to the grindstone, intent on delivering as perfect a product as I could muster. On this I have spent the better part of three days. Then I had to figure out what I'd learned, which is why I write this blog! Kinda like life, isn't it? We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes; take time to share your mistakes with those you care about. Couldn't resist an admonition!

To address my deficiencies, LOL, I went back to a better starting point. I chose three frames, all of which were shot from the same camera/tripod position. I made absolutely sure the first two exposures, chosen for their relative quality with respect to shadow and highlight detail, were aligned; in other words, when switching rapidly from one to the other, nothing moves. These I merged and made usual adjustments in Photoshop. To bring up shadow detail, I chose a third frame with a suitable exposure and diligently made sure it too was aligned with the first ones and added a few more adjustment layers, always making certain I could retrace my steps.

Given a good negative, the rest was relatively easy except for removing bits of lens flare. But then I learned something new again from Tony Kuyper using a process known as frequency separation; I took out the distracting bits of flare while leaving those which I thought were esthetically pleasing. Satisfied that the image was now as good as I could get it given my current level of skill in post processing, I didn't publish it, I slept on it! Look before you leap. The pause that refreshes. Once burned, twice shy. Count the cost. You get the point. Anyway, a few subtle but necessary tweaks this morning and here it is!

Touch the Sky Revisited Revisited
Composited from three frames at different exposures in Photoshop

I know it is much more saturated than the original, but this was a deliberate choice on my part. Stylistic preferences aside, this version is now what I was going after in the first place. Third time's a charm! Borrowing from another metaphor, I left it all in the image. But as you may know about me, I did my best, for now


Monday, July 16, 2018

Touch the Sky Revisited

I have mentioned previously that I am revisiting some of my older images. This is mainly to help me evaluate whether I have learned anything over the past several years. Old dogs sometimes learn new tricks! In this example, there are no long stories, just examples of images processed in 2012 and 2018, respectively.

The originals were taken in Sedona from atop a small butte during what was leading up to a spectacular sunset. With visions of making the cover of Arizona Highways, I snapped away on a tripod with all settings the same except that I varied the shutter speed from 1/8000 sec down to 1/125 sec. These images were all combined in an HDR (high dynamic range) merge and developed from there in Photoshop. This technique can enable the photographer to include very bright objects such as the setting sun along with much darker areas such as a backlit log. Our eyes can compensate for such huge differences in luminosity, but not so much our cameras. Below is my original interpretation:

Touch the Sky - Original
Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-120 zoom @ 30 mm, f/8, ISO 200, shutter variable
Today I decided to have another go at this file just to see how I might interpret it now. I didn't even look at the original, wanting to approach it without preconceived notions, or at least a minimum of such. I started with three frames, originally exposed at 1/8000, 1/2000, and 1/250 sec, aligned them in Photoshop and blended them manually, using what I thought was the best of each. I also kept the vividness rather than de-saturating as I did with the original. A different look, a different feel. You say tow-MAH-tow, I say tow-MAY-tow. Preference for one versus the other version is a matter of taste.

Touch the Sky - Revisited
Same equipment and setting; shutter speeds as above
Is one "better" than the other? I don't know, maybe you do. If you feel strongly one way or the other, I look forward to your comments. In any event, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did sharing it!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Monsoon Season Today in the Verde Valley

Monsoon season started on July 4 this year, at least here in the Verde Valley of Arizona. Off the back porch, the cloud formations above the Mogollon Rim are absolutely magnificent and the lightning shows spectacular. Woke up this morning to the clouds beginning to percolate, first gentle mists, then these beauties, all followed by stupendous sound and fury signifying something. What could that be? Some folks are not engaged by black and white although light and dark, even with respect to color, comprise the essence of photography. In color, this image was essentially monochromatic anyway, yellow and gray, so I decided to render it as you see. Taken this morning at 1040 local time, or Zulu as they say in the military.

Monsoon Season Today
Nikon D850, Nikkor 200-500 zoom at 200 mm, 1/1600, f/8, ISO 400
Speaking of the military, Chris and I were in Las Vegas last weekend and decided to check out a bar (oh my!) in which a parka is donned to accommodate the 20 degree chill factor. In the "icebox" we encountered two gentleman that had served in Iraq 2.0. One of them, I noted, was riding an elevated "scooter" that was necessitated by his wartime injury. This was explained quietly to me by his compatriot.

As I studied the injured young fellow from across the bar, I realized that I could not leave that room without saying something. "Your buddy shared with me a bit of your story," I started. I was surprised at his gregariousness as well as his open responsiveness. His eyes level with mine, we shook hands and chatted a little. His name was Brian. He'd been traumatically injured, losing everything from his hips on down. He'd helped invent the "scooter" he was riding and was in good spirits. Of course, the ice and I mean ICE cold vodka he was sipping (us too!) probably helped. By that time, Chris was getting really cold and we said goodbye and slipped out, a little bit ashamed.

As we were warming up outside, Brian and his friends emerged and we waived. A little while later, he came over and asked Chris if she'd like to play some ping-pong. He proceeded to give her quite a thrashing, which only added to our astonishment and respect. The game finished, Brian asked, "You seem very interested, any particular reason?" We explained that our son was soon due to deploy to some shithole, yes, shithole country and that we just could not ignore what our "kids" that serve often endure for our country. I was floored when immediately Brian replied, "It's hardest on a soldier's parents. God bless you!"

I have been thinking about this conversation for the last several days, sometimes on the edge of tears. This man had lost half his body and his last word was to bolster and encourage US! Just wanted to share this with you; it is worth reflecting upon, lest we forget those that we put out on the edge to protect our freedom. I know it may be a cliche, but that freedom has been hard won; let's not fail to remember their sacrifice.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Light and Shadow

Photography literally means "light writing" and cameras can capture that which is written by light. In this sense, photographers are not "light writers" at all; they are more akin to explorers, discoverers of the "words" left by light. Let there be light!

Isn't it interesting that light is emphasized by darkness? The obverse is also true. Light illuminates the darkness; light "writes" on darkness. Differences in light and dark, we call their relationship "contrast" and gradations in contrast lead to interesting shadows. In terms of illumination, contrast and shadow cannot exist separately, one without the other. In this, I find shadows fascinating, both metaphorically and photographically.

Another interesting fact is that light is understood as a duality, wave and particle simultaneously. I am not going to get all quantum mechanical on you although that too is fascinating, but light and dark, contrast and shadow also represent dualities; I wonder if the duality of light itself has anything to do with that.

As an aside, photoreceptors in our eyes can perceive different wavelengths of light as colors, but in this blog, I am going to consider only light and shadow in the absence of color.

We have some clerestory windows in our house and they open to the rising sun. Every morning with my coffee, I watch the path of the light coming through, each day different, and wonder if I could have figured out that these differences arise from earth's motion around the sun. So far, I think I've rationalized how I could use these pathways as a calendar, but I haven't yet come up with a way to intuit our position on the surface of a planetary ball hurtling through space around a relatively massive fusion furnace emitting literally tons of light! Undaunted, I watch the light and the shadows produced by it.

I find one of these "light-shadow" patterns particularly intriguing for some reason. It is formed by light streaming through a square window and intersecting a metal candelabra that has glass candle holders; the shadow is projected onto a plaster wall. I have photographed this shadow numerous times with varied success, but how do you photograph a shadow? For one thing, you can't focus on it because shadows are fuzzy due to diffraction. Why does light bend when it passes an edge? To answer this question requires quantum theory, but I digress! The only way to focus on a shadow is to focus upon the surface struck by the light and upon which the shadow is projected. Even this is an illusion, but it turns out to be adequate for our purposes. Thus, Ansel Adams' "sharp image of a fuzzy concept" seems to be impossible in practical terms. We see through a glass darkly. That realization notwithstanding, I present my best effort to date, below.

Shadow Replay
Nikon D7100, Nikkor 28-300 zoom @ 135 mm, 1/250 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200
Switching gears, sometimes there's too much light. Photographically speaking, this often occurs during a bright and sunny mid-day. Such was troubling me during my recent visit to Canyon de Chelly while I was lamenting the fact we'd already missed the "best" light, golden hour; besides, it was hot as we were hiking down into the canyon. Then I had an "ah-ha!" moment that would have been obvious to others, but was a new revelation to me. One of the features of photographs taken during the magic (golden) hours is the contrast provided by the oblique angle of light, which lends definition to a scene, dimensionality, texture. Of course, the light is much, much warmer as well, but I was contemplating monotone renderings, so color temperature wasn't really a consideration. Here's the epiphany: at midday, vertical surfaces would provide that oblique "angle of attack" for the available light, so I started to look for nice examples of light and shadow. Hey, just trying to make lemonade!

The near vertical walls of the canyon provided ample subject matter. I began really seeing and occasionally snapping examples that called to me. Particularly alluring were those candidates that might suggest I wasn't shooting in the middle of the day at all and where the light would perhaps gently sculpt a surface, lending soft texture. Of course, this faux-twilight effect is not the only possibility; interesting patterns of light and dark also called to me. While the contrast of such captures might be somewhat harsh, I was on a search for just the right highlights with just the right shadows. I have found a few of those, which can be seen on my website.

But back to faux-twilight. You see this in some photographs of sand dunes where the gently rolling slopes gradually attenuate the light at certain angles and contribute to wonderfully soft, graded shadows. At least, that was what I was thinking when I captured the image below. We had reached the bottom of the canyon and were taking photos of what is known as the White House (see previous blog posting). While scanning the cliff face with my telephoto lens, I spied some symbols carved into the rock, topped by a sublimely soft streak of light lending some texture and contrast to the surface.

Symbols and Light
Nikon D800E, Nikkor 28-300 zoom @ 300 mm, 1/800 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400
For some reason, my imagination was captured by the provocative juxtaposition of man-made symbols with natural illumination cascading down the sandstone. As I pondered this, it occured to me that the symbols themselves were illuminated by reflected light. Symbols, like the letters and words on this page, like the ancient pictographs, also are a form of light; an inner reflected light that seeks to capture the sum of our experience, our hopes, our fears, a light that we innately seek to share with others. To me, all of this seems (or seemed) interconnected somehow, the natural light and these glimmers of human understanding. Perhaps light from without is intertwined with light from within, both illuminate the darkness, but we wouldn't appreciate it, wouldn't even really notice it, if it weren't for the shadows.

I hope you have enjoyed this little essay and apologize if some of this seems like too much of a lecture, not meant to be, just sharing the happenstance of thoughts that occur along the trail of my photographic journey. If you like the blog, please subscribe and/or share on your social media. If you'd like to be removed from the modest emailing list, just let me know or send me to spam!