Friday, September 26, 2014

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors Report September 2014

Fall colors near Bishop, CA Saturday, September 20, 2014
Fall colors are getting underway in the Eastern Sierra.  These are some of the better locations I found last weekend down in the Bishop area.  The aspen were still mainly green, especially nearly all of the larger trees off of steep hillsides, but for the next two weekends conditions should continue to spread the color to more trees at a wider diversity of elevations.

I say "should' because at this point in the transition to color, the big variable becomes wind.  If a storm blows through, the turned leaves can blow down.  Similarly, extreme cold can make the leaves go directly to brown.  So if you can only get up there on weekends, consider the next two for the Bishop area (especially Bishop Creek and Rock Creek), but do check the weather forecast and factor that in if you can only pick one.

The examples on this page were all taken Saturday, September 20.
Eastern Sierra Fall Colors 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

California Landscape Photography Guide Book

Draft cover for my upcoming guide book to Southern California landscape photography
This is the draft cover for my upcoming guide book to landscape photography from Yosemite to San Diego.I started this journey in September 2006, putting whatever belongings I could fit in my SUV and dropping them off at a storage locker, before going on the road with a copy of "Photographing Southwest, Volume 1 - A guide to the natural landmarks of Southern Utah" by +Laurent Martres.  I went on the road full time as my divorce started. Landscape photography, and that book, got me through a lot of rough times in the next few years. In a sense you could say that they saved my life. Imagine my surprise when I started a Mono Lake and Yosemite regional guide, contacted Laurent since he didn't have a California book, and by coincidence he was just about to hire someone to write a book to cover those locations through San Diego!

I spent the next few years living out of the back of my car, returning to spend weeks with my kids, and to bring them out to explore America's incredible landscapes with me.  On one hand it killed me to be separated from them sometimes for weeks at at time, but on the other hand it was crystal clear that the days with them were precious, so I went out of my way to dedicate those days to them, and engage them in the exploration of places of unique geology and geography and almost overwhelming beauty.  I'm very fortunate that they seem to have developed some of the same curiosity and thirst for exploration and adventure that I enjoy.

All my life I've been drawn to nature and landscapes, growing up exploring the woods, ponds, mountains and coast of New England.  Our family hiked the peaks of Colorado and the boardwalks around Yellowstone's geyser basins curing our move to California, where the grand scale of the High Sierra, Mojave Desert and Pacific Ocean begged for attention.  In a sense my explorations over the years leading up to this project mirrored that legacy, as I shared with my children many of the same discoveries that my parents had led me to.  Custody days for me aren't a burden, they're a priceless privilege.  Gaining perspective on what's important in life is something that can never come too soon.  

I could travel the world in search of soaring mountains, searing deserts with massive sand dunes, wave-pounded seashores or forests with astonishingly massive trees, but that's all within a day's drive.  You can search the world or Oz to fill some perceived need, but for anyone lucky enough to have both family and Southern California nearby, there's truly no place like home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Lights Are in Your Light Painting Bag?

What's in your light painting bag?
A lot of my lights are re-purposed from camping, backpacking, cycling, astronomy, and so on.  A lot of the colored lights I use are from Dollar Tree or  I get asked a lot about what gear I used for a particular shot, so I store a lot of my purchases in an "Astore" on +Amazon.com
Your use of that link supports my work and blog.

What lights do you use?

Here are some of mine, shown above:

A. - Glow stick light wands - They are available in at least 6 colors plus a color-changing variety.  About $5 each.  Move them through the air or hide them inside things ot color the interior.

B. - Book reading lights - When you tie them to a string, spin them in a circle then rotate the circle to trace an orb sphere in the air, the plastic color shines through.  $1 each at +Dollar Tree@DollarTree
C. - Electroluminescent wire, also known as "El wire" - 9 foot sections of wire which glow in the dark.  About $5-10.  Whip it up and down to make "fire", move it along the ground to make "smoke".

D. - Stanley FatMax spotlight or Black&Decker - Millions of candlepower, two beam widths, very long battery life (haven't had to recharge it in months).  Great for chasing bears out of your yard or campsite.  About $50.

E. - Inova LED light - Great for light orbs, also for projecting small amounts of colored light onto objects.  About $7-9 each.
F. - LED Lenser RGB LED flashlight - Four on/off switches so you can mix and match colors.  About $40, may be marketed under Coast brand now.  Paint different areas of a scene with different colors.

G. - LED tea lights - The waterproof ones are very bright, either cool white or amber (orange).  The fake flame ones have more reasonable illumination on dark nights, and come in a warm yellow or a slightly warm white.  About $1 each in small quantities, but as little as $0.50 in larger quantities.

H. - LED under-cabinet lights - For your kitchen, or anywhere else you want a beam of light.  $1 each at Dollar Tree.I. - Green laser - Super bright, potentially dangerous to the eyes, not a toy.  Shines a bright beam for miles.  If an airplane thinks you're pointing it at them, you'll be reported to Homeland Security as a terrorist.  I bought mine at +Fry's Electronics, should be available at as well

J. - A Brinkman model, runs on AAA batteries.

K. - Small LED camping lantern.  About $10.

L. - Kukoda Track solar charging LED panels - Manufactured by +Flexiway Solar Solutions for the Kokoda Track Foundation, which is replacing kerosene lamps for residents of Papua New Guinea.  

M. - Colorful plastic film for coloring white lights - $1 at Dollar Tree.

N. - Cool white LED lights - I found these for $1 each in a 6-pack at +The Home Depot.

O. - Bike LED lights, white and red - Removable so they don't get stolen.  I bought mine at the Reno Bike Project, about $5-10 each.

P. - LED Light wand - Very bright, with the notable feature of having a magnetic side opposite the lights, so you can position this light firmly inside of rusty metal objects.  About $10 at Fry's Electronics,

Q. - MiniMag flashlight - Classic warm, incandescent bulb.  Easy to manage (enclose front in your hand) for adjusting camera settings, walking and only shining where your footsteps need to go, without spilling light all over town (like a headlamp).  A value leader at $10.
R. - LED MiniMag flashlight - Very bright, cool white.  About $30.

S. - Small "kids" headlamp - Small, light, compact, bright.  Thankfully no red mode which destroys everyone's foreground nearby if you accidentally turn it on.  About $12 as sale item in the clearance section of  +Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI)

T. - Mini-LED headlamp - Super small and light, I use this for hands-free use around camp when backpacking.

U. - UV headlamp - also has white and green modes.  I specifically bought this for hunting scoprions in the dunes in Death Valley.  Use UV-blocking eye protection.

I'll have to work on posts which illustrate more sample uses for many of these types of lights.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chrome Extension Shows Klout Scores in Your Twitter Feed

Sometimes when new people start interacting with you on social media you don't have a lot of context.  Or with people you may have been connected to for a while, how active are they?  You can only keep track of roughly up to 150 relationships in your life, so for online interaction, a number of tools have been developed to help you make sense of the rest.

You may be familiar with +Klout, which ranks people for their activity and interactions online.  It has some drawbacks, like over-ranking people for activity volume rather than content quality, and failing to demote serial copyright violators who mainly re-upload others' images, but for a brief glimpse it at least tells you if they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+.  A Klout score of 70 or above for example indicates a ranking in the top 10% of social media users.

Here are a couple of examples, the one above looking at +Andy Hawbaker's Twitter feed and  the one below looking at the feed for +Sierra Trading Post:
I took a look at their Twitter feeds after Sierra Trading Post licensed one of my photos for an article on night photography.  I like giving back, so I went to Sierra Trading Post and bought clothing from +Columbia Sportswear and fishing gear from +Ross Reels , +Umpqua Feather Merchants+frogg toggs and others.  Thanks Sierra Trading Post for using my photo, for helping me upgrade my clothing and gear!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Mars, Saturn and Moon Conjunction Over Bodie's 1937 Chevy August 30

Mars, Saturn and the moon over Bodie's 1937 Chevy on August 30
I wrote a blog post last week about the opportunity to capture the moon, Mars and Saturn on the evenings of August 30 and 31.  This is the shot I planned with +The Photographer's Ephemeris to place them over the rusty 1937 Chevy in California's Bodie State Historic Park.

Moments earlier I had been catching sunset on Main Street, and Mars and Saturn were just becoming visible over the DeChambeau Hotel:

Mars and Saturn become visible to the left of the Moon over Main Street in Bodie 

It's fairly easy to plan for interesting photos to capture these astronomical events if you use any one of a number of astronomy or astrophotography planning applications to anticipate potential compositions.  I mentioned several in my blog post last week:
For The Photographer's Ephemeris, check out the new Web version of TPE, since Google has retired the version of Google Maps used in the prior desktop app.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Redemption of High Dynamic Range (HDR) Software

Joshua tree in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
When I captured the image above in early 2009, I used a Canon EOS 40D.  Although that was the first Canon camera marketed as producing 14-bit RAW files, it wasn't always clear from the results that it was producing the implied 4X more color resolution compared to prior models producing RAW files with 12-bits of information.  This is the original single exposure image, fully post-processed recently in Adobe Lightroom 5.  In that single exposure result I was frustrated by the relative lack of detail in the shadows, and the highlights are lacking in detail as well, so the dynamic range, the ability of the camera to capture a wide range of bright to dark light values, is clearly inadequate.

Fortunately the image was captured in a 3-exposure sequence, so as I revisit the images from that day now, over 5 years later, I can try post-processing it using a current version of Photomatix HDR software which offers a "natural" mode which produces fewer artifacts than prior versions did..  One thing that is clear is that there is a significant amount of shadow and highlight detail present in the scene which is brought back into the HDR result.

3 exposures post-processed in Photomatix HDR software

I had been unable to produce an acceptable result for this image in 2009, but using current tools, significant highlight and shadow detail can be recovered.  High Dynamic Range software is finally getting to the point where it can produce high dynamic range.

Six days before I had captured this photo, I had written a blog post including the following:
"Many people vilify HDR; I don't get it. Most people play guitar poorly, but that won't keep me from enjoying the work of many talented guitarists. Of course everyone's entitled to their opinion and their own tastes. If classical music fans want to say, 'Ugh, I think I hear a guitar in that piece!', or photography fans want to say 'Ugh, Galen Rowell used graduated neutral density filters!', that's their privilege. Surely HDR software will get better and better at expanding dynamic range while producing unobtrusive results, and as that value is delivered for more and more shots, I'll have terabytes of exposure-bracketed images to draw upon."
Why Would Anyone Use HDR? It's Unreal!
While the degree to which the HDR processing itself is still noticeable is open for discussion, I didn't care for the original which was overly light and dark at the same time, so this strikes me as an improvement.  It is also a good example of that concept I proposed which proposes that future advances in software may help us overcome current limitations in hardware, provided that you record more data than your camera can capture in a single exposure.  The way to do that is to capture an exposure-bracketed sequence, where you capture both darker and lighter exposures than your best attempt at a single exposure.

At that point in 2009 I was using HDR software roughly 80% of the time, in spite of its crude state and sometimes objectionable artifacts.  Shortly after upgrading to a Canon 5D Mark II, with a full frame sensor and much better dynamic range,  I was able to quickly drive my HDR usage down to 10% and then 2-3%.  HDR could still rescue images which could not be salvaged in single exposure form, so it remained one of many tools at my disposal, but it became more of a tool of last resort than a key piece of my workflow.  

Unfortunately by that point the use of HDR had developed negative connotations with many photographers, so in 2011 I felt the need to explain my rationale for using it at all:
"Some photographers have fallen in love with High Dynamic Range (HDR) post-processing, producing dramatic but strange results. Other photographers dismiss the often wacky-looking HDR results as 'technicolor vomit' and note that any monkey can move a slider in software to make a scene look strange, the talent lies in making a single, flat camera exposure look more like what we experienced onsite. Unfortunately, the range of light present, the dynamic range of the scene, is often far beyond what a single camera exposure can capture. So like so many polarized debates these days, the prudent path may lie somewhere in between. " 
HDR Isn't Just a Crutch, or a Crime 
As I look back now, with improved HDR software providing even more useful utility, as I try to process photos from my pre-2009 cameras I still have challenges producing excellent results from some of the lighting conditions I found myself shooting in.  So although my own pendulum of HDR use swung from strong support to a bias against it, as my use is rising again it's still a centrist view: I'll use it when it's useful, and it is becoming more useful.

Merced River Calm
HDR 2014, Canon Digital Rebel XTi photo captured November 2006
If you decide to buy Photomatix, you can get a 15% discount by using the coupon code JeffSullivan when you by it from its publisher HDRsoft: