Death Valley, The Photos Keep On Coming
I had originally planned to cover a different topic today but, in looking over my Death Valley National Park (DVNP) photos, I realized there were more that could be re-purposed for a blog. I’ll move on next time but, for this post, I’ll continue with photos from DVNP.
Batteries are near and dear to many RVers and Scotty’s Castle is a marvel of battery technology. The owner, designer and civil engineer, Albert Johnson, was as ingenious as he was eccentric. As backup for the diesel generators that eventually replaced the Pelton water turbines, Johnson installed two banks of 100 Edison nickel-alkaline batteries. Each battery produced 1.2 volts for a combined total of 120V per bank.
This is the top bank of batteries and there’s another bank below. It’s quite an impressive installation with none of the negatives associated with today’s lead-acid batteries. Knowing I couldn’t use a tripod or flash during the tour, I carried only my Canon EOS-M mirrorless camera with a fixed 22mm lens, a medium wide lens on the EOS-M. That meant I could back into a corner and capture most of one battery bank in a single frame.
In order to get most of the batteries in focus, I set my aperture to f/11 (small opening.) That gave me a hyperfocal distance (focus point) of about 7.5 ft where everything from half that distance (~3.75 ft) to infinity was in acceptable focus. Of course, “acceptable” is in the eye of the viewer so some may not like the blurriness of the near and far battery caps but, when you’re being hurried along by a tour guide you have to go with “by guess & by golly.” The trade-off at f/11 is that my shutter speed (time light is allowed into the camera) was 2 seconds. I’m sure some of the blur is due to camera shake as I tried to handhold such a long exposure while braced against a rail. The photo was converted to B&W in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom by simply clicking the B&W tab in the Develop Module.
The point here is that you don’t always need the whole scene to make a good photo. This photo has legs because the open cap in the foreground contrasts with the neat, tidy rows of closed battery caps. If I were to exhibit this photo, I’d title it something like, “I Gotta Be Me!”
Sometimes, a scene seems silly and whimsical. I saw the scene below as we emerged from the power plant tour and thought it might make a good photo to go along with DVNP history as a setting for sci-fi movies.
Notice how the original was quite different from the final. The only substantive change was to crop the final to just the relevant parts. The Crop Tool is one of the most useful tools in any photo editor. At the same time, keep in mind that cropping throws away pixels and reduces the overall quality of the final image. This is OK for small web images that you use on social media but won’t print worth beans.
Panoramas are popular types of landscape photos because they capture the grandeur of wide-open space like DVNP. Most any photo editor today has a built-in pano stitcher but that’s the back-end of the process. If the starting images aren’t carefully aligned and processed, the final result will suffer. Remember, “garbage in, garbage out.”
The group drove to Aguereberry Point one day. I took a Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-105/4L IS lens and a tripod. The temperature was about 55F at the top and most of the group wanted to jump out, snap a photo and get the heck out of Dodge. I, on the other hand, wanted to wait for the right light so we compromised and left as soon as everyone got their snapshots.
The pano above was stitched together in Adobe Photoshop CS4 from seven separate images. To make the images, I first leveled my tripod using the built-in bubble level. After mounting the camera and deciding how much I wanted to include, I adjusted the pitch downward to capture the valley floor near Badwater. Usually, a very expensive camera and/or lens are used to correct pitch but today’s software is pretty sophisticated so it’s easy to correct slight pitch. Be sure to overlap each frame by 20%-40% depending on how much pitch you have.
When making pano images, be sure to adjust exposure using shutter speed and not aperture. Changing aperture will change depth of field and cause odd focus shifts between frames. Back home, I selected the most interesting frame and adjusted that first. Then, I synchronized all the frames to the first image. This ensured that all the frames had similar light, white balance and sharpness. Otherwise, it would be obvious that multiple frames were stitched together.
On the way to Aguereberry Point, we stopped at Eureka Mine an abandoned mine claim worked by Pete Aguereberry. Here, I made two photos to illustrate a common issue in tourist areas, too many tourists! The first two photos show people in both. The third photo shows the scene with the people removed by simply layering one photo on top of the other and erasing the area with people. The photo below shows through and everything lines up perfectly. I used Adobe Photoshop CS4 but its little brother, Adobe Photoshop Elements, can do the same thing with a bit more effort.
So, that brings us to the end of another article about photography in Death Valley National Park. Of course, these tips can be applied to any situation, not just DVNP. As always, if you have questions, comments or requests, post them here. Thanks for reading.
Photo Ops in Death Valley
Just got back from Death Valley National Park (DVNP) where, as always, I saw some amazing sights. DVNP is the largest NP in the lower 48 states and 91% of it is classified as wilderness. Over the years, I’ve driven through DVNP on several occasions but never gotten off the beaten path. This time, we got a “round tuit” and checked out some of the places I’d heard of and some I hadn’t.
The Amargosa Hotel & Opera House is a “must see” for anyone visiting DVNP. I won’t regurgitate all the info about Marta Beckett because you can Google it but it’s a fascinating story of dedication, determination and downright single-track-mindedness. Even non-ballet fans (most of us) will be enchanted by Marta’s story and the performances by Jenna McClintock, who took over for Marta late last year.
The first two images show some of the murals Marta painted on the walls of the opera house so she would always have an audience. The last two are of Jenna McClintock, a young woman who, as a 6 year old child, was inspired to become a ballerina after seeing Marta perform. I hope to return in the future to photograph the entire theater and, perhaps, talk Jenna McClintock into recreating some of Marta Becket’s photos. All the above photos were made with a Canon EOS-M with a standard 22mm f/2.0 lens. ISO was cranked up to 12,800 and WB set to Fluorescent. All postprocessing was done in LR4.
The next three are of the area around the opera house. I didn’t spend a lot of time outside but it looked like there were some opportunities to be further explored. These were made with a Canon 5D MkII and 24-105/4L IS.
These last two photos are HDR of a Peter Lik gallery that has been installed at DVJ. I waited until after dark and lucked out with the reflection of the front facing photo in the window glass. It reminded me of a ghostly dancer apropos for the Amergosa Opera House. The first was made with a Canon 5D MkII and 24-105. HDR processing was in Photomatix Essentials. The second was with my Samsung Galaxy Note II using its built-in HDR capability.
The Samsung’s tiny sensor and lack of controls in the HDR app shows when comparing the images side-by-side but, then again, the 5D MkII can’t make phone calls.
I have more photos that still need to be processed that I’ll post next time. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment or questions.
Just a Bunch of Photos
Nothing fancy today, just a bunch of photos from my trip to Lake Havasu City Rockabilly Reunion and serendipitous WPA Winter Blast 2015.
I made use of HSS (high-speed sync) on my Canon 580EX II with 5D MkII and 24-105/4L IS at the Rockabilly Reunion. The music was pretty good, the cars were interesting if that’s your thing and the pin-up models were happy to pose!
It was a lot of fun and, next year, I’ll have a better plan for photographing the pin-up models.
Western Pyrotechnic Association Winter Blast 2015
This is an annual event on President’s Day at Sara Park in Lake Havasu City. It’s like a Battle of the Bands except with fireworks. Each group tries to out do the other with louder blasts, more colorful displays, greater altitude and bigger “WOW” factor. It’s fun but fireworks every night for 4 nights is a bit much. Most fireworks displays are about an hour or less but these guys had what they called “Open Shooting” for 4 to 6 hours every night. Our poor cat was stressed. We moved after the 2nd night.
When photographing fireworks, it’s important to have either a foreground or background object that adds interest and dimension. Otherwise, every burst looks pretty much like every other burst. The clouds on the 2nd night added some extra “pop” (no pun intended) to the photos.
The standard camera settings for fireworks are Manual mode, Aperture ~f/11-f/22, Shutter Speed ~6 – 30 seconds, focus about 1/3 of the way down the frame and release the shutter when you hear the mortar. It goes without saying, use a tripod and set your release to a 2 second delay so you don’t induce shake as you press the button.
All photos were processed in LR4. Basic edits including crop, adjust levels/white balance, sharpen and resize/compress.
Alpacas and an Austrian Chicken
A member of the Photography Group invited us to her ranch to photograph baby alpacas and other critters. There were alpacas, a llama, Austrian chickens, horses, a mustang and a donkey, a veritable menagerie. The alpacas were the cutest critters I’ve seen.
I used a Canon 5D MkII with a 24-105/4L IS, my go-to combo. I also added the Canon 580EX II in HSS mode for some fill light. The alpaca fur sucked in light and wouldn’t reflect anything back so I had to crank up the intensity to get the desired levels. I love the catchlights in their eyes. They’re curious but not overly friendly (unless you have treats) so it’s difficult to photograph them in a good pose. All photos have been cropped, adjusted levels & white balance, sharpened and resized/compressed in LR4.
Tip – For animal photos, I found I can reduce Lightroom clarity by -15 to -25 and increase sharpening to 65-75 and radius to 1.2 to compensate. Reducing clarity further blurs the background and I make up for it by increasing sharpening/radius. I finish by edge masking all except the eyes.
The first photo, a 3 month old baby girl is my favorite although the others are cute in their own ways. The chicken’s feathers were beautiful in the light. The flash added some extra sheen. A fun shoot.
Dragging the Shutter & 2nd Curtain Sync
As promised, here’s a primer on event photography in dimly lit venues with people are milling about or, worst case, dancing and cavorting. Let’s break down the situations to those where you just want more light on the background and those where motion is directional, e.g. conga line.
Since there are, at least, a gazillion articles online about dragging the shutter or 2nd curtain sync, I’m not going to regurgitate info that’s so readily available. Instead, I’ll give a short, concise overview and an explanation of when and why one would use these techniques.
Dragging the shutter, also called Slow Shutter Sync, is when a shutter speed is selected that allows more of the background ambient light to be captured. In a typical flash image, the camera measures the amount of light being reflected back from the subject and cuts off the light when enough light has been recorded. This results in a well exposed subject emerging out of a “black hole” of a background. By slowing down the shutter, the sensor has time to record more of the background. Here’s an example.
On the left, Tina is reasonably well exposed but the background resembles a dark cave. In the right photo more of the background is exposed by dragging the shutter (keeping it open longer) while the flash exposes Tina. Exposing the background adds context to the photo.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this is not a true photo where I dragged the shutter. The effect was simulated in Lightroom but the end results are the same.
Second curtain sync delays the flash until just before the shutter closes. Normally, the flash fires as soon as the shutter opens. If my shutter speed is 1/60 to 1/200 second like many flash exposures, there’s no problem because the model doesn’t have time to react. However, when dragging the shutter at 1/2 sec or longer, the model might move as soon as the flash is seen. That can result in a blurred image. By using 2nd curtain sync, the model doesn’t see the flash until the shutter is ready to close.
Second curtain has an other useful applications. When capturing light trails such as the headlights of a car at night or a conga line at a party, it’s important to show the correct direction of movement.
These aren’t particularly good photos but they get the idea across. The first photo uses 1st curtain sync otherwise known as “normal” flash sync. The flash fires as soon as the shutter is released. Note how the headlights make the car appear to be moving backwards. The second is with 2nd curtain sync. This photo shows shows the car moving forward. Also, note how the cars are relatively sharp when the flash fires. Flash tends to “freeze” movement. This isn’t a difficult experiment so go outside and try it. It works best when both the camera and flash are in Manual Mode.
I know this article isn’t as clear and concise as it should be so, as always, use the Comments box to post any questions and I’ll try to make it more understandable.
High Speed Sync for Portraits
Over the past year, I’ve been doing more people photography. This past week, I had the opportunity to use high speed sync for outdoor portraits and it was an fun learning experience. In the past, when making portraits outside, I chose an uncluttered background, put the subject in the shade and used an external flash to add a little fill. That works well for most cases but there’s always the chance there won’t be a suitable background.
Since this was a test shoot, I decided to experiment using a Canon 5D Mk II and Canon 580EX II set to High Speed Sync (HSS.) The intent was to use as wide an aperture as possible to produce a nice background blur. To do that, I needed a faster shutter speed than the 5DII’s 1/200 max sync speed. At f/4 in AV mode, the camera wanted a shutter speed around 1/1500, way too fast to use the flash. No problem, I set the 580EX II to HSS and the 5D Mk II to Manual Mode. Then, I dialed in 1/1500 shutter speed with the aperture at f/4. Using that as a starting point, I took a few test shots, watching the histogram to keep everything in balance.
HSS works by spreading the light over a longer time period so there’s light across the entire shutter open time. To do this, light output is reduced by about 1/3 which means HSS useable distance is greatly reduced. A full and complete explanation of HSS can be found in the “Bible” of Canon flash photography, Mastering Canon EOS Flash Photography by NK Guy.
The first photo of Sharon & Pallas combines a nicely blurred background due to a wide open aperture and unobtrusive fill that also added a catchlight to their eyes. The only negative is that the catchlight is dead center in their eyes because the flash is mounted directly above the lens. I like the sunlight on Sharon’s hair and the reflection on Pallas’ hair. A nice environmental portrait if I say so myself.
On the second photo of Sharon alone, I gave her a bit of a “glamour” treatment with Portrait Pro 10. I was trying to see if I could make her look younger and I think it works. In the third photo, I couldn’t believe the change in Sharon’s persona when I asked her to let down her hair. The sunlight off her hair combined with Portrait Pro enhancements and the soft, dark background could definitely pass for a 25 year old grad student. I’m not going to give her real age but let’s just say PortraitPro can shave decades off a portrait.
Photography as a Journey
These next photos are from my friend Jill who was in one of my classes in San Diego about 12 years ago. Like many students, she asked my advice on digital SLRs. As a Canon shooter, I pointed her to the then recently introduced Canon Digital Rebel, the first sub-$1000 dSLR.
Over the years, Jill & Jerry have stayed in touch, sharing many photos made at their home in SoCal and a summer home in Montana. She caught the competition bug some years back and, sometimes, bored me to tears with questions about photo contests. In the beginning, she used to be so proud and happy just to have a photo accepted. Today, she’s distressed if she doesn’t get 1st or 2nd place for all her entries. The point is that photography, like many endeavors in life, is a journey, not a destination. The journey is the reward. Keep at it, enjoy yourself and, one day, it suddenly becomes clear. During the process of mastering some skill or process, you’ll discover new skills and processes to be learned. To paraphrase Greg Lemond, “It never gets easier, you just get better.”
These were all 1st or 2nd place winners in her local camera club competition out of 53 entries. For Jill, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s stomping the competition into the ground. Who woulda thunk a Great-Grandma would be such a fierce, “go for the jugular” competitor? Congratulations Jill, for not only your photo skills but also your stick-to-it-ivness. Your journey has certainly been worth it thus far.