Atlanta

Room with a View

Room with a View

I haven’t posted in this blog for a long time. Actually, I haven’t been taking many pictures for a long time. Between work and buying a new house and moving and other stuff, I just haven’t been motivated.

I am out-of-town for a conference in Atlanta Georgia this week however, and I brought along my little Fuji X100 traveling camera to amuse myself with when the presentations start to get deadly. I have a laptop with me (of course) and some basic editing software (PSCS-5) but I don’t have my full processing kit available, so I am going to redo these when I get home. In any event, I thought that I would get a couple out here just for the hell-of-it.

I am staying at the conference site in the Atlanta Westin Peachtree hotel – that big cylindrical landmark building that you always see in “Atlanta” portraits. The first shot is a view from my hotel room on the 35th floor about half-way up. This was processed a fair amount in PS, but unless you are a professional photojournalist there is nothing wrong with a little artistic license. You may be able to see me waving from my window in the reflection of the hotel in that dark building on the left.

I suppose that the X100 may be considered “old” at this point, but I like it a lot. Most people would just use their cell-phone camera for things like this, but I prefer to do “real” photography with a “real” camera with full manual controls and RAW output. Not only is the X100 small and light and convenient as a travel-camera with an APC-C sensor and good low-light performance and decent glass, it also has an optical range-finder-like viewfinder. Sometimes I use the back LCD screen to compose my shots, but I really don’t like eye-level LCD viewfinders and I almost never use it in this camera. Of course, there are limitations to an optical VF. The primary issue here is the fixed single-focal-length lens. There are times when I wish that my framing could be tighter or wider, but working with “What’s There” and the limitations of your equipment is part of the art of photography. I just don’t think that I could give up the optical VF for the sake of interchangeable lenses in a compact travel camera – that’s what my big mirrored SLR is for.

 

Westin Peachtree; Atlanta Georgia

Westin Peachtree; Atlanta Georgia

A Musician’s Shoot

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My wife plays the harp professionally. Earlier in the year we had done a shoot of her with her big pedal-harp in a formal setting to promote her wedding business, but now she suddenly needed something different. She has been offered a gig at a local Renaissance Fair and they wanted publicity photos of her for some advertising, so this was to be outdoors with costume and Celtic harps (she has 5 or 6 instruments – or is it up to 7 now). Fortunately our own backyard and garden work pretty well for stuff like this, so that is where we did it. I would add that this is not supposed to be “art”, it is supposed to be “marketing”, and the techniques and objectives of these styles of photography are different (IMHO). I was rather pleased with the results here though, so I thought that I would post some and talk about what I did (not that anyone should listen to a simple amateur like me).

Based on my own self-taught experience, I think that there are several “tricks” to getting really good outdoor portraits. Obviously, as is true with any photograph, you have to be aware of your background. I see so many pictures that are ruined because the photographer just didn’t “see” what they were putting behind their subject. You may not be able to move houses and telephone-lines, but you can move your subject to avoid them. The top photo was taken with my subject sitting on an old barbeque that was built with our house around 1960.  The tight cropping makes this a little less obvious, which is important because this is a portrait of the musician not a snapshot of someone perched on a barbeque. I think that the texture of the wood and stone adds some interest however and it “works” for the medieval ambiance of the Ren-Fair.

The next trick is lighting. The blazing noon-day sun is a really lousy time to take pictures of people outside. The shadows are harsh and the searing light makes people squint. The best outdoor light is “bright overcast”, which is what this day happened to be for the most part. I also deliberately waited until later in the afternoon when the sun was a bit lower and the light a little more subdued and the colors a little warmer and more pleasant. My third trick – and this is what really helps make an outdoor portrait look “professional” – is to use a fill-flash. What I do is set the camera to expose the ambient light at about -1ev, which darkens the background a bit, and then I set the flash-exposure for 0ev or even a little more. This way the flash illuminates the subject nicely and makes her “pop” while the background stays – well – in the background. Again, this isn’t a portrait of a garden with a human form in the middle, it is a portrait of the person. If you can’t help what the sun is doing, then at least turn your subject so that they are not looking directly into the sun and the fill flash should take care of the worst of the dark shadows. The second shot here was taken when the sun happened to peak out from the clouds, but the “dark-side” of my subject’s face is well-lit with the fill-flash and therefore the shadows are not too obnoxious.

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Now, you really don’t need a lot of fancy and expensive equipment for this kind of flash work, but I do use an independent flash unit. A built-in flash might be OK for this kind of light-duty fill work, but I strongly recommend a decent independent flash because they are much better than built-in flash for the long-run. In this case I just didn’t feel like hauling out my light-stands and umbrellas and all that jazz though, so I used the flash direct, with a grid and an off-camera cord. This allows me to put the camera on a tripod and then just hold the flash up and away from the camera by a couple of feet so that the light from the flash is not near the lens axis. What makes a lot of flash pictures really ugly is when the flash is almost – but not quite – on the lens axis and you get a hard little halo shadow around the subject. This is typical of built-in flash and it ruins a lot of pictures.

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All of these photos also had a decent dose of processing too. This might be most obvious in the first one. In addition to basic cropping and Photoshop cleanup, I used NIK “Color Efex Pro” to add a little vignette darkening and vignette blur. This creates a bit of a surreal atmosphere, but also makes the subject really stand out.  In my opinion the key here is “less is more”. You don’t want to slap people in the face with your processing, just add a subtle touch of je ne sais quoi. Although it may be a little less obvious in the other two, I did some darkening and de-saturation of the background and boosted the subject a little to make her stand out. This has the same objective as underexposing the ambient and using the fill-flash, but having the camera work and the processing “pulling in the same direction” is (in my opinion) better than trying to make one or the other do it all. Oh, and as one other “trick” here; I was using a polarizing filter on these shots too. The point of the polarizing filter (in addition to polarizing the light) is that it reduces the light that reaches the sensor by about 1.5ev. The reason I did this was because my camera has a relatively slow sync-speed (max 1/200-sec) and I didn’t want too much sharpness in the background – which is what a small aperture would do at that speed. The polarizer also helps darken the foliage.

In case you are interested, all shots were with a Canon 5DmkIII and 24-105 f4L-IS lens with B+W circular polarizing filter and Canon 580EX flash with Canon off-camera flash cord and tripod.

Trexlertown Applebee’s

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A few years ago, 2008 to be exact, I was casting about for an interesting photo-op. I had recently purchased my Canon 1DmkIII camera and I was looking for an excuse to use it. We are not far from a place called Trexlertown in Pennsylvania, and Trexlertown is known for having a velodrome – a place where they race bicycles. One weekend, after doing a little research so I knew that there would be some activity, I went up there with my camera gear. I’m not entirely sure what was going on because I am not into bicycle racing, but there were some races, although very few spectators, and they were not charging admission (it may have been “trials” or qualifying runs of some sort). I wandered around the whole day shooting up a storm, although it was high-summer and very hot and very bright.

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I have had these pictures posted in my Flickr account since 2008 and although I went back occasionally to admire my handiwork, and they would occasionally get “hits” from others searching for “Trexlertown”, I didn’t think much of it. About a week ago I got an e-mail from a representative of a graphic arts company saying that they were putting together the décor for a new Applebee’s restaurant opening in Trexlertown and they wanted to know if they could use my images, since they like the decorations to reflect the locale. The person said that they were willing to provide attribution and even pay a modest amount. I wrote back and said that they were welcome to use my pictures for this purpose free-of-charge, since I consider myself a strict amateur and I am proud of that status. I did specifically mention that I have no release-forms, but I am sure that the Applebee’s lawyers know how to deal with that (the business holds the legal liability, not the photographer). I have to say that in spite of the payment offer, I have no respect for the faux-tographer “semi-professionals”. You are either good enough to make your living with a camera, or you are an amateur and you shouldn’t take people’s money for something that any-old yutz can do.

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It is my habit to shoot RAW and to keep all of my RAW originals. During my processing workflow I often create intermediate TIF files on the way to a JPG final version, but since those TIF are so huge, I often delete them shortly afterward. Because I keep the original unmodified RAW files however, I can (as I did here) go back and reprocess the images using my current software and processing techniques. I find that my photo processing evolves rather rapidly, and I am now capable of producing much better output than I was 5-years ago.

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I will have to keep my eye on the Applebee’s web site and when they open that restaurant I’ll have to take a ride up there to see if they really did hang any of my stuff.

 

A Weekend Excursion

One of the major ways my wife has to pry me out of the house is to promise that I can bring a camera (or two) and take pictures. She recently used this device to get me to travel to North Carolina for a long 3-day weekend to hear a couple of harpers perform. These were Patrick Ball, an internationally known Celtic harper of the wire-strung instrument, and Shira Kammen, who is not only a well-known harper and early-musician of many talents, but also a personal friend of my wife.

My wife (right) and her friend, Shira Kammen (left)  Fujifilm X100

My wife (right) and her friend, Shira Kammen (left)
Fujifilm X100

The show was a dramatic presentation of the story of Tristan and Iseult with Patrick Ball as the narrator and Shira Kammen on musical accompaniment. The venue was a place call “The Music House”, which is owned by a professor of music at Eastern Carolina University there in town.

The Music House; Greenville, NC  Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

The Music House; Greenville, NC
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

They said that the house was built around 1900 and the interior is beautiful. We owned a house of this vintage for a while, but we had neither the money nor the vision to do what these folks have done. In addition to living there and collecting musical instruments, the owners also present these small chamber-concerts in what may once have been a formal dining room.

The Music House; Greenville, NC Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

The Music House; Greenville, NC
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

I brought my small Fuji X100 camera and my Canon 5D along with 3 or 4 lenses. When we went to the concert however, I didn’t want to lug a whole pile of stuff, so I just put on an EF 16-35mm f2.8L lens and used that. Patrick Ball didn’t want photographs during the show, so I snapped some around the house and then a few afterward. The setting made some “antique” processing seemed appropriate, and this was done in NIK Color-Efex Pro-4.

The Music House; Greenville, NC Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

The Music House; Greenville, NC
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

My wife and Patrick Ball after the show. It was Patrick Ball and his wire-strung Celtic harp that helped inspire my wife to take up the harp too.

Patrick Ball Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

Patrick Ball
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

A Good Day for Cats

click to enlarge IPhone5; f2.4; 1/1000-sec; ISO-50

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IPhone5; f2.4; 1/1000-sec; ISO-50

No art here. I was just resting from some garden work and decided to snap something with the IPhone-5 I had in my pocket at the time just to fool around with it.

I am still a believer in “real” cameras. I only rarely see anything taken with a phone that looks like anything other than crap. I do admit that it is theoretically possible for good work to come out of one – the primary factor, as always, is the photographer, not the equipment. I think that one of the problems with most phone snapshots is that they are seldom processed. They are meant to be careless amateur throwaways snapped and posted to Facebook within moments by people more interested in the latest tech than quality images.  I guess that this is one point behind “Instagram”, but I am not inspired to try that because I have never seen anything from it that is anything other than horrid. Again though, I’m sure that this is dependent on the human hand far more than the technology.

I emailed this to myself from the phone and then went in on my “good” computer and pulled it into PS. I boosted the vibrance quite a bit and lowered the saturation slightly. I then took it into NIK Viveza and did some spot adjustments for contrast and brightness to balance the DR. The resizing was done in PS with a “sharper” option, which is usually all the sharpening that I do. The framing is SOOC.

The original file at full-res is rather soft, although in the bright sun with ISO-50 the noise, even in the shadows, was undetectable. I take the softness of the original to be a function of the tiny sensor. Physical sensor size is probably the primary telltale for potential image quality – not “megapixels”. I’m sure that the tiny lens didn’t help much either. I suppose that if the IPhone is all you have with you at the time, it is better than missing the shot altogether, but with compact APS-C sensor cameras in abundance on the market, I really can’t imagine using any current phone for “serious” photography other than for demo purposes. I still plan on carrying my Fuji X-100 around with me everywhere and haul out my Canon artillery when I’m inspired to try to donate something to posterity. Who knows though – maybe someday…

“Becky Shaw”

5DmkIII; Canon EF50mm f1.4; ISO-50; f1.8; 1/160-secclick to enlarge

5DmkIII; Canon EF50mm f1.4; ISO-50; f1.8; 1/160-sec
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There is another show coming up at our local community theater, and the Marketing Director needed some early rehearsal shots for their web-page and for print publicity. The show is “Becky Shaw” which is a modern drama about The-Blind-Date-From-Hell. It is still 2-weeks to opening, so of course there are no sets, no costumes, no props and no lighting. In fact, 2 of the 5 cast members weren’t even available either, but the Marketing guy needs something for his deadlines, so the commission was to do some “in-rehearsal” shots with the people we had. Fortunately these included the two leads and because it is a contemporary setting, normal street-clothes were not inappropriate. With the bare-assed nature of the environment, this really demands tight shots of people in dramatic interaction. The way we usually do this is the director (who knows the show) selects a scene and the actors run through it with me popping away. Stage actors really don’t do so well with static poses. When setting up I often have to move junk out of the background or ask the actors to get closer together than they would ordinarily be. I don’t do a lot of my own “directing”, but a little is always necessary.

This show is being presented on the secondary stage in the loft of the theater. The place has a rough brick wall that has a lot of great character, but the problem is that it has too much character. If it is well-lit and in-focus the high-relief texture of the brick draws your eye and distracts you from the actors (which I know by sad experience). One of my objectives here therefore was to diminish that distraction as much as possible by trying to darken and blur the wall. I’ve tried to do this darkening and blurring in post before, but the results are much better if you can get it right in-camera. For this reason, although it won’t be the actual blocking for the show, I had the actors set up as far away from the wall as possible to help enhance the bokeh. I have the Canon 85mm f1.2 lens, but given the limited space in the loft I was concerned that this would be too tight, so I put on my Canon 50mm f1.4 lens. This lens is probably one of the best “values” out there for Canon cameras because it can produce decent output, good bokeh and work in very low light, and yet it is still not too outrageously expensive. I reach for this so often though that I am considering moving up to the Canon 50mm f1.2L lens for the sharper, cleaner output of the L-class lens – maybe this summer when they often go on sale.

5DmkIII; Canon EF50mm f1.4; ISO-50; f1.8; 1/160-secclick to enlarge

5DmkIII; Canon EF50mm f1.4; ISO-50; f1.8; 1/160-sec
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The next thing of course is that while bokeh is great, you still need to have your subjects in focus, so I bumped the aperture down a stop. I also wanted to darken the background relative to the subjects, which is actually a little tricky because there are skylights above that brick wall and at this time of year there was still a lot of light coming through them (especially for that aperture). I knew that I was going to light the actors with flash, so I used a low ISO (50) and high shutter-speed (relatively) to compensate for the large aperture and help darken the ambient light in the background. Unfortunately the 5DmkIII max sync is only 1/160-sec which is slower than I would like – there is a lot more flexibility when you have very high sync-speeds available (my Fuji X-100 leaf-shutter syncs at 1/2000-sec). This was lit with two Canon 580EX flashes into reflecting umbrellas about 45-degrees both left and right. I had the lights pretty close to the actors (maybe 4-5 feet) and very high and pointed down at a sharp angle meeting in the middle. This was mainly to keep the flash light from reaching the back wall and giving me too much illumination back there. This did produce some deep shadows in the eye-sockets, but I was able to bring that up with NIK Viveza control points (have I mentioned how much I like NIK stuff? Oh, I have – OK).

So I had my aperture fixed at f2 for the bokeh and the shutter and ISO fixed to darken the ambient light, so the real variable here (as it often is) is the flash output. I had someone stand in for a few test shots and determined that a manual setting of 1/4-power was about right. After I had the units set and in place I decided that I wanted a smidgen more light than that, so I moved the aperture to f1.8. I take a whole bunch of shots in a case like this, because it is hard to tell when you have the Money Shot on that tiny 3-inch display screen on the camera. You can easily tell things like exposure, but sometimes someone’s expression isn’t quite right, or someone’s eyes are momentarily closed or the AF messed up (never me, of course), so the more options you have to choose from the better. On the other hand the director (who is always in-charge) could only give us about 20-minutes out of the rehearsal for this shoot, so you can’t spend too much time fooling around. I just have to be sure that I don’t shoot faster than the recycle time of the flash units, but at 1/4 –power that is pretty fast.  Oh, and the flash are fired by inexpensive radio-triggers called Cactus V-4 (another great photographic bargain that I couldn’t live without).

In processing I did a little bit of cropping. You always want to frame a little wider than you need because it is easy to crop but really hard to get back something was never there in the first place. The final crop needs to be tight because some of this is going to newspapers who really demand that things be that close. Other than cropping and a little Viveza lightening of the faces there really wasn’t any other processing done here. I am pleased that the background and overall effect came SOOC pretty much exactly the way that I wanted it to. Anyone can get 10 great shots out of a thousand exposures just by serendipity and dumb luck, but it really feels good when you know what you want ahead of time and know what to do to get it to come out that way – and then it actually does.

5DmkIII; Canon EF50mm f1.4; ISO-50; f1.8; 1/160-secclick to enlarge

5DmkIII; Canon EF50mm f1.4; ISO-50; f1.8; 1/160-sec
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The Marketing Guy also always wants something with the director being “directorial”, so here is a static setup with the director and the 3 actors who were there that night.

1DmkIII; Canon EF24-105mm f4L IS; ISO-400; f8; 40mmclick to enlarge

1DmkIII; Canon EF24-105mm f4L IS; ISO-400; f8; 40mm
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And just for the hell-of-it, here is an outdoor shot of the theater itself that I took a few weeks ago for their publicity use. This was heavily processed with NIK Viveza and NIK Color-Efex-Pro and it was also a HDR composite from 3 different exposures. Being associated with this theater is a great little gig that gives me tons of great experience, even if I do give it all away fer-nothin’.

The Steam-Plant

Fujifilm X-100; ISO-400(A); f5.6; 1/60-sec

Fujifilm X-100; ISO-400(A); f5.6; 1/60-sec
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It’s not clear to me why NIK (recently acquired by Google) is suddenly giving away their entire product line for free (at least to former purchasers like me) – but as long as they are I figured that I’d take advantage of it. After having the full-suite of NIK Lightroom plugins for years, I have been thinking for a while of springing for the PhotoShop versions, but free sounds better than paying money. I suspect that Google is about to change the business-model and maybe make this a subscription-based structure. I hate that subscription shit, and I may never sign up for it, but at least I now have the full current versions of everything including the PS plugins.

This was processed first through Lightroom and then using the PS-plugins through Vivesa, Dfine, and Color Efex. I hope that Google doesn’t screw this up – those NIK modules are great.

I now work at a small liberal-arts college in SE-Pennsylvania as a network engineer running the campus computer and wifi network. One of my current projects is to track down all the campus fiber-optic cable because some of it is very old and there is no documentation for what’s-what or where it goes. This job is getting me into some of the mechanical rooms and other dark-and-dingy corners of the campus that few people ever see except my fellow on-staff Morlocks. I have taken to carrying my Fuji X-100 around to grab any images that strike me as I work on this (I love that little camera). This is in the building that is known as the Steam-Plant which used to provide heat to all the other campus buildings. My high-tech fiber-optic cable is in this room mounted on the wall behind me.

Portrait of the Artist

This gallery contains 1 photo.

I wanted to play with my camera-toys this Saturday, so what better subject than the one that is always available to you – your own beautiful self.  By the way; I have observed that the vast majority of self-portraits are taken by women. Not making any snide comments or judgments here – just sayin’…  and… Read more.

The Director

This gallery contains 1 photo.

As previously discussed, I do a lot of shooting for a local community theater. As I become more familiar and comfortable in the environment one of the things that I have an interest in doing – beyond simply documenting productions for the venue and doing their publicity shots – is to try to “capture the… Read more.

Creating Light

This gallery contains 2 photos.

In addition to photography, a major hobby of mine is flower gardening on our 3-acre property. We also maintain a season-pass to Longwood Gardens; one of the premier horticultural sites in the world and only about an hour’s drive from us. Between my own garden and Longwood and the merging my two hobbies, I have… Read more.