Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Successful Photograph

This photograph had me asking myself what makes a successful photo. Is a photo a success because it is tack sharp? Or is it because it has caught the decisive moment? Maybe it is successful because the colors are rendered perfectly. In truth, there are probably many reasons a photo might be thought successful. I liked this image instantly when I saw it. I know, I know, most people would probably trash it. But, despite it's shortcomings, it conveys a message of trust and love and caring. I'm not sure if a tack sharp image would have done that.

Just as my wife was coming up the porch steps, the light changed from bright sunlight to shade and the shutter speed dropped to 1/6 sec. (on a not particularly fast lens), causing the image to blur. I was using a kit lens on an older DSLR body. The lens can be produced cheaply because it is not fast (f/5.6). One of the differences between amateurs, such as myself, and professionals is the lens they use. Pros use top of the line lens which are very fast (f/2.8 - sometimes even f/1.4). These are also very expensive lens, most starting at greater than a thousand dollars, and are hard to justify for use in a hobby. I'm not making excuses; that is just the way it is.

You cannot predict how a blurred photograph will look. Even if you intentionally take a blurred photo, the results are not predictable. I was surprised how my wife's coat appears to have a texture that is not really there and how Jojo ( our peke's) chin hair rendered fairly distinctly. The negative "halo" around the edge of his neck and head adds interest too. It is hard for me to determine whether I'm too subjective because I know the dog and the person or whether the photo stands as interesting in it's own right.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Spring Leaves

In a recent post, I spoke of getting bit by the leaf bug in the fall. Actually, I can get bit by that bug almost any time of year.  The nuthatches nest just as the leaves are unfolding in the spring and a couple years ago, two took up residence in a house I had built for them on the edge of the yard.  I would go out and film them almost every evening, but at that time of year, the sun was pretty low on the horizon by the time I made it out there. While I would wait for the birds, I would watch the sunlight shift from one patch of leaves to another, each one spectacular in it's own right. So, of course, I took pictures.

When you take a picture like this, you want to meter for the lightest area of the photo and let the rest of the tones fall into shadow if they going to.  It defeats the purpose of trying to capture the light if there is no detail in the leaves. It is always best to take pictures of leaves at their prime, which is right after they unfold and before they start to develop blemishes.  You can see one leaf that has a blemish already, just days after unfolding. In composing the picture, I knew that I wanted to bring the branch in from near the corner of the frame, but not exactly in the corner.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Saved for Posterity

I wanted to share one more post of some of the cherry blossom images. I took many, many more, but I thought you might enjoy the delicate beauty of a few of them before I move on to other subjects

By taking the right angle in this image, I was able to incorporate the colors of a redbud tree in the far background.

Sometimes I think they are just as pretty facing away from the camera.

One of the nicest things about photography is while the blossoms may already be gone, they will live on in the photographs taken of them and can be enjoyed at any time of year.

Sometimes a few voices can be just as beautiful as a choir.

One of the nice things about a DSLR is you don't have to settle for the light falling on the subject. You can meter something else that may not even be in the picture and lock the exposure for that scene, then use the meter reading for your actual photo. I metered something very dark. The camera then renders this dark tone as a middle gray. Any tone lighter than this is moved up scale, causing it to become lighter in the photo than it appears in the actual scene. In this case, it imparted the correct tone to the blossoms that were in shade while rendering the dark trees in the background much lighter than they actually were. Notice how all the colors compliment one another.

I wish I had thought of incorporating the sunset earlier on when the blossoms were in better shape. You can see some stems that are petal-less in this photo taken after the heavy rain knocked a lot of them down. Well, there is always next year...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Versatility of Camera RAW

When you save photographs in the jpeg format, you are using one of the most common file types which will probably be around for decades to come. That's the good news. Your heirs will probably be able to view them. The down side of jpeg, though, is that the picture, much like a cake, is pretty much cooked by the time it is saved in the camera. It is true, some changes can be made in a photo editing program and they can look pretty good if you know how to use the software. But, it is kind of like the icing on the cake. You have some control over how it will taste, but you cannot fundamentally alter the cake.

I wasn't pleased with this image of cherry blossoms I took the other day and was about to throw it out. I decided to try something different, after further thought, to see if I could rescue it.

RAW files are so named because the information is minimally processed in camera. The processing consists of a few things like slight sharpening and filtering our infrared light for example. A RAW file is more like a photo negative or in our analogy, a cake batter, where you can significantly effect the outcome of the cake before it is baked by the ingredients that are added.

There are little add-on programs available for programs such as Lightroom called plug-ins. They are made by other companies and give you the ability to perform a task that the program may not perform as well on it's own. I decided to try selecting a couple of these plug-ins to see what I would get with this image. In the case of these plug-ins it was simply a matter of clicking on a name for the look it would give the image. This look is from onOne software company and is called Movie Look: Blue Dawn. I liked it, so I decided to keep the image file. What I didn't like about the image to begin with was the lack of sharpness. With this look, it didn't matter, since the main effect is to slightly blur the subject and give it a delicate glow.

For the sake of demonstrating how different the same file can look (because it is a RAW file), I decided to make a couple of other versions. Nothing changes about the original file. All these changes are recorded in the file as metadata (data about the data) and the instructions are carried out at the time the file is exported from the program.

This one is called Movie Look: Omaha Beach. It is more of a bleached look with an emphasis on a grainy appearance. There is no true grain in a digital file as there once was with film, but it can be added in later as an effect if you like that sort of thing.

Digital image files are made up of three channels - blue, green and red. It is relatively easy to extract one of the channels which, by themselves, appear as grayscale images of varying tonality. The sliders within Lightroom under hue/saturation/lightness allow almost unlimited possibilities as to how the image will be rendered - and all without being destructive to the original file.

This particular one-click selection (plug-in) was called Blue Filter. If you like to have better control of the outcome, home made cake is better than store bought. One other aspect of a RAW file that makes it a superior format is the fact that as the algorithms for making changes to an image improve over the years, you can return to a file shot from years ago and reprocess the information with the latest improvements. This one fact makes RAW invaluable in my mind.

Friday, April 26, 2013

I'll Follow the Sun

I thought I was through with filming the cherry tree.  The hard rain and wind that marched across the country extending all the way from Canada to the Gulf had swept through our area too, knocking down many of the blooms. I was working on some of the photos for the blog when it occurred to me that the sunset is a clear shot from where this tree is situated.

I knew the sky would give me enough light to use the long lens, but I wondered whether I would get enough light on the blossoms to keep the petals from being underexposed and possibly blurred. That evening I was ready when the sun began to go down. Fortunately, there was a thin cloud cover over the entire sky, enough to cut the truly strong light while also diffusing the glow from the warm sunset.

The sun doesn't appear directly in any of these images. Rather, it is the sunlight filtering through trees which are probably a hundred or more yards away. Some petals can appear almost translucent with enough sunlight on the.

The lovely round circular blurs of light in the background are called bokeh (bo kaw), which is a Japanese term for the effect, and has been adopted in general use by photographers. They have a direct relationship to how many leaves are designed into the shutter of the camera. The more leaves, the rounder the appearance of the bokeh.

Most point-and-shoot cameras as well as DSLR's have a host of settings to correct for shooting under different types of lighting such as cloudy, incandescent, etc. I'm not sure about point-and-shoot, but with most DSLR's, you can also set the color temperature (expressed in Kelvin) of the photo anywhere you want to. I almost always leave mine set at 5000, which is roughly the color temperature of daylight at noon.

This is a personal decision that many may not agree with, but I like to use that point as a standard or baseline for color temperature. That wouldn't be a good idea if I was saving the files in the jpeg format, but because I save them in the RAW format, color temperature is easily corrected. And lets face it, unless you are an extremely finicky photographer using a gray card for color correction, you are going to want to adjust color temperature later. I just choose to do it this way.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

High key Images

One way to deal with bright sunlight is to try to go with it instead of fight it. By pushing most of the information to the lighter end of the tonal spectrum, it is possible to capture more detail in the image that would have been blown out. High key images tend to convey the idea of cheerfulness or joy.

Because the sky is so bright in the background, when the blossoms are recorded in lighter tones, the sky goes completely white and featureless. This allows the blooms to take center stage.

There are so many different things you can do with photography and I always try to keep the high key technique in mind, but the opportunities to use the method aren't always there.

By the third day, the colors were beginning to fade on the blooms. The weatherman was calling for heavy downpours overnight and I knew that was going to knock a lot of blossoms off the tree. The day kept going from cloudy to sunny and back again. I waited until the sun was out, but filmed petals that were in the shade.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Background Check

So far, I have shown mostly tight clusters of blossoms. They were not shot one right after another, but were chosen out of a series of photos. They were shot in such a way that the background of each contributes little to the image. If you can position the background far enough away from the subject, it will become a simple color wash against which the subject stands out.

On the other hand, I was also looking for situations in which the background could contribute to the picture without distracting from the blooms such as in this image where one of the branches is seen and there is the suggestion of another cluster behind the main subject.

The tree is not a cultivated or pruned tree and is lanky in an effort to reach the sunlight under the canopy of other larger trees at the edge of the woods. The trunk can be seen here in the background. This year was the most loaded with blossoms the tree has ever been. I like this wild one more than the cultivated trees in the park.

Here is another photo where the trunk of the tree is visible.  It is surprisingly small. This photo was taken on the second day which was cloudy, but the sky in this image is almost too bright and slightly distracting. Still, a cloudy day is much better for this kind of photography. Bright sunlight on blooms can blow out one petal while the petal next to it is rendered too dark. I was glad it was cloudy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Overcoming a Height Problem.

Cherry blossoms, as with almost any other flower, do not all open at the same time. Early on, many of the buds are still closed as seen in this image taken on the first day of photographing the wild cherry. The buds add lovely pinkish-red accents to the open blooms.

When first opened, each bloom has fairly deep pinks and reds but, over time, these colors begin to fade to white. Weather has a lot to do with how long the blooms will last. A stray hot day can really speed up the decline and decay of the petals. Heavy rain, such as came through the area on the third day, can knock down many blossoms. While the petals fall, the pistils and stamens do not. Their presence in a photo communicates the fact that the photo was taken past the prime blooming period.

Those who are familiar with DSLR's cameras might be surprised by the lens I used on every one of the images I took this year. It was my 400 mm telephoto lens normally used in long-distance photography. I added a Canon EF25 II Extension Tube between the camera and the lens. The reason I decided on this combination is because of the cherry tree itself. Even the lowest branches are probably eight feet above the ground. The highest branches are probably fifteen feet or more above the ground. Although I have a 100 mm lens, this wouldn't have gotten me close enough to film small clusters of blossoms.

Adding the extension tube allows you to film somewhat closer but also results in limiting the far end of focus. In other words, you cannot focus to infinity as you can without the extension tube. But this combination was perfect for "reaching" the blossoms that would have been out of range for any other lens combination I had - unless I used a ladder.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Back to the Garden

The cherry blossoms I posted recently were from previous years. Cherry blossoms bloom for a very brief period. If they last more than a week, that is a long time. Trees that still look good from a distance will reveal branches full of tattered blossoms after only a few days. The peak period for photographing them is very brief. 

A year is a long time to wait for a second chance to film them, so you need to plan accordingly. I was not able to make it to the park to photograph the cherry trees there this year. We had company for a few days and I didn't want to seem rude by disappearing for an hour or two each day. We have a wild cherry, however, on the edge of the property (it actually belongs to my neighbor but, because of it's location, we get to enjoy it while they cannot see it).

That wild cherry is where I took these photos. In preparation, I reviewed past photos I had taken to see what had worked in what did not. It is part of a process I recommend for almost any subject. Your first attempt at capturing a subject - and I'm talking about capturing the essence of a subject - can almost always be improved on. And, reviewing what worked is a good way to do just that.

Having done that (by looking critically at the photos I posted a couple of weeks ago), I was prepared to look for the types of images I hoped to capture. In addition, I knew better what settings on the camera I was going to need to use to reach my goal. I was thrilled with the images I came away with. It was hard to stop shooting as I kept seeing new possibilities the more I looked. I shot over a period of three days before the decline in the blooms started to become noticeable.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Talk About a Challenge!

This photo, which was another photo I retouched for the photo lab, taxed my ability to the max. I was asked to remove the crowd so that the bride and groom were alone in the image. Not only do you have to get rid of the people, you have to recreate what is behind them. That is not even to mention the perspective problems with all the lines in the ceiling and the floor. It was a real challenge!

The result wasn't perfect, but the couple was delighted and I'm sure the wedding photographer wished he gotten the image in camera to begin with.

Here is a little story I read the other day in a photography magazine that I can really relate to. The question was asked: "What's the oddest thing a client ever asked you to do?" One photographer responded with the following: "A lady came into my studio with a photo of her sister. She wanted me to copy the photo for enlargements and when I did, turn her sister around so she could see her face. After all, she had the negative." 

That had me laughing. Kind of like this picture. Take out the crowd so we can see the background.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Photo Restoration

Teaching myself photo editing as a hobby in my spare time paid off in a way I did not anticipate. After working for an organization for thirty-one years, I was fired when I refused to go into a decidedly unsafe area of the city. 

I ended up working as a contractor for a professional photo lab. They were making the transition from analog to digital and developed a backlog of work that needed to be digitized and retouched.

This image was originally a photo that was set in an oval frame that bulged slightly in the middle, making it spherical rather than flat. It was brought in by one of the lab's customers to be "fixed." It was approximately eighteen inches high, so it took a pretty big scanner bed to digitize it and created what, at the time, was a huge file.

Much of the work of restoration is a matter of being able to clone good information into bad areas. The main constraint was restoring the work in a minimum of time so that the job was profitable to the lab. I was pleased with the way this one turned out and I think the client was also.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Repurposing Photos

I hope you don't mind me covering other things besides birds for a while. I'm not shooting birds right now and I thought I could share some other ways to inspire photographers out there.

Here again, this photo was shot with the little Kodak digital camera in the side yard. One of the nice things about photography is that, if you are careful, you can make it look entirely different than it looks in "real life." Part of the trick is excluding distractions from the photo by careful framing. For example, this area is in the side yard of our house but you would never know it from looking at the photo because the house is not even shown. The side of the house, however, is just out of the frame on the right.

At the time, cassette tapes were still a common musical format and I would compile music on tape and create my own packaging for them, listing what songs were on the tape. If you think about it, a cover instantly tells you if you enjoy the music and you begin to associate the cover with how much you like the music.

For you who are into gardening, I built the walk myself using a neat little form that is available for the task. Since it is modular, I didn't have to do it all at once and was able to mix one or two bags of cement each evening after work until I finished the job. You can pretty much create any design you want as there are no even sides. By going back and filling in the cracks between stones later, you can plant small ground cover type plants or longer term, just let mosses take over. It has been a project I never regretted doing.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Screen Saver Programs

One way I have discovered of determining whether a photo I have taken is any good, is how long I am willing to endure looking at it. And a good way of doing that is through a screen saver program on a computer. Most computers allow you to pick a folder containing pictures and display them like a slide program when the computer is not being used.

There are some photos that I initially like. By incorporating them into a slide program, however, I find that I quickly tire of looking at them or worse, actually cringe when they appear. Others cause me to have the opposite reaction.

There use to be a wide assortment of "plug-ins" for photo editing software. I think maybe competition over the years has shaken a lot of them out of the market. I don't seem to see nearly as many as there once were. Plug-ins will do a specific function that the photo editing program may not be able to do itself or that it can do easier than "doing it by hand."

Early on, I used a plug-in on a photo of Black-eyed Susans. I think the plug-in was called Van Gogh, but I could be mistaken. I liked the effect. Ten or twelve years later, I still like the image. I'm not sure whether that means the photo was good or that I am one messed up photographer. The jury is still out.

Here is an example of creating an effect "by hand." I took a photo - again this was years ago - of a crepe myrtle weighed down by wet snow. In looking at it later on, I realized it was a good candidate for creating a kaleidoscopic effect. By taking the original image - which would be any one of the four quarters of the picture, and turning it and, in some cases, flipping it (digitally) - I created this somewhat bizarre image. Now this one, I couldn't stand to look at more than once in a blue snow.

Corel Painter (a wonderful software program for the more artistic amongst us) has a kaleidoscope plug-in. It is the only program I know that has one. You tell it how large an area in pixels you want to make it and then place it over a photograph and move it around until you see something you really like and then hit enter to close the deal. It is such a fascinating plug-in. It is downright addictive and I have to stay away from it because I could easily spend hours fooling with it. I'll have to make an example that I can show in a future post so you can see what I am talking about. It is just very, very cool.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

More of Kids Kounty

The humor was the hardest part. I mean, it wasn't like you thought up something funny and then went out to film it. It was the other way around. Sometimes, I would have to rack my brain.

When submissions would get low, I would resort to using my grandson again.

One thing that came out of it is I got really good at making those caption balloons in Photoshop...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

More Kids Kounty

I came across some of the panels the other day while I was looking for something. I thought maybe you would enjoy seeing some of them. Everything in this image is real - except for the shark fin. I think this one was maybe my favorite. It probably isn't that funny but, I tell you, I haven't been right since Jaws came out. You can't hardly get me in anything besides a swimming pool.

I frequently had to extract the child from the original background and, since they were not real to begin with, I figured using clip art was a good solution for some of the panels. In this image, I didn't do anything to the boy's eyes. That was the way the original picture was!

I used a plug-in (a special program that will perform a specialized task from within the photo editing program) to give the pictures a certain grittiness that would look less like a photograph.

Here again, I didn't do anything to the young man. He was already wearing the sunglasses and beard.