Surprises

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I am not an expert in flowers.  I know the occasional flower, but am often stumped by what a particular flower might be called.  I envy people who can pull out that information on a dime.  I can do that with a lot of birds, but in spite of how immobile plants are, they seem to fly right out of my brain.

But these flowers didn’t just stump me, I couldn’t remember having ever seen one before.  Perhaps I walked by too quickly and didn’t notice that it wasn’t just another Queen Anne’s lace.  But as I looked at these images more and more, I couldn’t come up with any memory of one.

Besides being surprised by the new flower in my life, I was also surprised when I went a little nuts playing with adjustments and pulled the curves feature in a direction that created much of the effect in this image.

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This is a “normally” post-processed version of the same image:

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As you can see, I was playing again.

Perhaps the biggest surprise today was when I was working away at my desk and a man hanging from a rock climbing rope appeared outside my 7th floor window.  I’d forgotten that the building’s windows were being cleaned until I was in the middle of a conference call and suddenly joined by this mysterious window ninja (that’s the name of the window cleaning company).

Had I not been in the middle of a conference call, I might have had the where-with-all to snap a quick shot of this guy hanging outside my window with my iPhone.  It didn’t occur to me to do anything but pretend the guy wasn’t there (once I got over my initial shock).

Tisen’s girlfriend is visiting for a few days.  She noticed the window ninja about 2 minutes after he appeared.  She immediately jumped up and started barking.  I’m confident Tisen would never have noticed him had it not been for this alarm–he’s so oblivious it’s almost funny.  However, he joined in the barking and I had a difficult time explaining to the folks on my call that I had a man hanging outside my window.  Fortunately, it was an informal and internal call with colleagues I know well.

It wasn’t the most exciting day, but there were quite a few surprises.

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Just Ducky

Sometimes black and white makes an otherwise uninteresting shots better

Sometimes black and white makes an otherwise uninteresting shots better, but not always

When we went to the Nature Center a weekend or two ago, we went to see the Red Wolves.  But the only wildlife we saw were these two mallard ducks.  Seeing a mallard is not exactly the most exciting birding event in the world.  According to several sources (including Cornell), they’re the most abundant duck in the world.

These two really did not want their picture taken.  They were paddling along serenely until I pulled my DSLR with the 70-200mm lens on it.  It’s as if they knew what a hunter with a gun looked like and were confusing me with one.  They made a bee-line for cover.  I rushed the shot, trying to get a nice close up before they got out of sight.

This is a "traditionally" adjusted version--just nothing to get excited about

This is a “traditionally” adjusted version–just nothing to get excited about

As a result, I didn’t get a chance to change any settings on my camera from the last shot I’d taken.  Having been shooting in the treehouse just before this, I had the camera in full manual mode and set for a pretty dark scene.  So, of course, my duck images came out pretty darn bright.

So, once again, I found myself playing with adjustments in Aperture to see what I could come up with.  Nothing like a bad shot of a ubiquitous subject to make you feel like you can go crazy with the editing.

Playing with the "blur" brush, I applied it to the whole photo and then erased the blur where the ducks were.  I'm not really a fan of this look.

Playing with the “blur” brush, I applied it to the whole photo and then erased the blur where the ducks were. I’m not really a fan of this look.

An interesting side effect of going crazy with the photo editing was that it really demonstrated the superiority of the female mallard’s plumage.  As I adjusted and twisted and played, the biggest challenge was keeping her from disappearing all together.  With brown speckled feathers, the female just kept blending into the background.

I would probably like this if the female showed up better

I would probably like this if the female showed up better

Surprisingly, as I did a little reading on the mallard–a species I have taken for granted since the first time I through them bread crumbs when I was about 4 years old–I learned that sometimes the male is just as well camouflaged.  As an “intermediate” birder (on a good day), I was a little embarrassed I didn’t know that the male mallard loses his flight feathers at the end of breeding season at the same time he molts into an “eclipse” plumage.  For about 2 weeks, he can’t fly.  The brown plumage provides cover while he’s vulnerable.

This was created mostly with the curves feature--but the colors just seem to compete with the ducks

This was created mostly with the curves feature–but the colors just seem to compete with the ducks

Every time I think I know something, I learn something new about it.  And when I’m sure I’ve exhausted all of the current information, usually new information is discovered if I wait long enough.  Good thing I like to learn.

Oops--I slipped with the curves adjustment.  But look at what happened to the male duck

Oops–I slipped with the curves adjustment. But look at what happened to the male duck

Tisen is an avid learner, too.  He has made more progress in his current hobby of “ground-dogging.”  I can’t recall him ever seeing a groundhog, so I’m not sure exactly where he got the idea to burrow under anything, much less blankets, but he’s now added snorkeling to his repertoire of blanket-burrowing techniques.  This is a welcome relief–sometimes when he gets himself completely buried, he starts sounding like he can’t breathe. I’m always relieved when we see his nose.

Tisen snorkeling from under the blankets

Tisen snorkeling from under the blankets

Thrown a Curve

Getting crazy with the Aperture curves feature

Getting crazy with the Aperture curves feature

After playing with my Hipstamatic images for the past several days, I finally remembered that I’d taken a few shots with my DSLR the same weekend.  I pulled out the memory card and downloaded the photos.

I seem to have had some difficulty switching from the square frame of Hipstamatic back to the rectangular frame of the DSLR–there were many extraneous things in my DSLR images.

I thought about talking about how the DSLR images were technically better images than the Hipstamatic images, but really, they’re not from an execution point of view.  If you want to compare megapixels and talk about sharpness, well yes, they are.  But, that’s not better execution; that’s better equipment.

A more conservative adjustment

A more conservative adjustment

In any case, instead of trying to prove you can take technically better photos that still don’t look as appealing as what might be considered a flawed photo, I thought I’d try taking one image and doing a lot of different edits with it.  I chose a DSLR image because of the better resolution and because it’s in RAW, both of which help images stand up to more edits.

This is the Hipstamatic image that I spent about 30 seconds creating:

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By comparison, this is the original image from my DSLR (no adjustments/edits):

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It’s not quite a fair comparison because of the differences in composition, but it’s the best I can do.

Now, what can you do with a not very exciting image of a treehouse?  Well, Hipstamatic has already done a lot of editing for me.  But I decided to push Aperture a bit to get a better idea of what kinds of things can be achieved in this relatively simple editing tool.

I don’t advise this exercise be started within 2 hours of bed time.  It’s addictive.

This is what happened when I started playing with the separate RGB channels in the curves feature

This is what happened when I started playing with the separate RGB channels in the curves feature

For most of the effects, I used only one adjustment:  curves.  I tweaked a bit in saturation, highlights, and levels.  But I literally spent an hour playing with dragging a curve around into crazy shapes just to see what would happen.

By the way, I didn’t sit down thinking “I think I’ll play with the curves feature tonight.”  This idea all started when I was adjusting an image and I accidentally pulled the curve too far in one direction.  The photo did something interesting and I liked it.

The curves feature is truly like coloring.  Maybe scribbling is more accurate.  Whatever it is, it’s fun.  I don’t often say that about photo editing.

Tisen cuddles Skunk on the sofa after a walk

Tisen cuddles Skunk on the sofa after a walk

Tisen has resurrected Skunk from the bottom of the toy bin lately.  This may be my doing–sometimes when he wants to take Big Dog or Squirrel on a walk (both of which trip him when he carries them), I make a quick substitution.  I think he had forgotten he had Skunk.  I like that the two of them together make a stripe pattern against a swirl pattern, but both in black and white.  Tisen seems to have discovered Skunk also makes a great pillow.

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Tisen has adopted a human style of sleeping.

Tisen has adopted a human style of sleeping.

Tisen isn't fussy when it comes to what he's willing to use as a pillow.

Tisen isn’t fussy when it comes to what he’s willing to use as a pillow.

Tisen can't decide whether to give in to his desire for a belly rub or his need to protect me from this stranger.  He splits the difference by rolling over while growling.

Tisen can’t decide whether to give in to his desire for a belly rub or his need to protect me from this stranger. He splits the difference by rolling over while growling.

Tisen seems to have gotten things reversed with his rear end high on a pillow.

Tisen seems to have gotten things reversed with his rear end high on a pillow.

Twiggy manages to curl up with the computer.

Twiggy manages to curl up with the computer.

Twiggy, Tisen, and Pat all curl up for an afternoon siesta.

Twiggy, Tisen, and Pat all curl up for an afternoon siesta.

Well, here we are, getting settled in our new home.  Today, we spent a couple of hours this morning cleaning our old apartment and gathering up the last remnants of our life there.  Pat hauled 3 cart loads out to the van while I cleaned.  We still have stuff in the storage rooms down the hall.  That will have to wait until tomorrow.  Or maybe even until after Christmas.

When we returned home, we worked on getting rid of the last of the packed boxes.  We still don’t have a place for everything yet and the photos are scattered around on chairs waiting to be hung, but the unopened boxes are all gone and it’s starting to look like we really do live here.

The new place came with one big surprise we discovered our first night.  When I got into bed, I had the sudden realization that a section of the building can see into our bed through a glass balcony door.  While it’s probably only about 6 units that have a view, that’s 6 more units than I want peering into our bedroom.

As a temporary measure, we brought the shower curtain rod and curtain we’d been using in the bedroom as a closet door (it’s a long story) and hung that over the glass in the door.  It looks great.  The glass in the door is about 6 feet tall and the shower curtain is only 4.  It’s also a black curtain and the building has a rule that all curtains have to be white on the outside.  I’m hoping the blind comes in before anyone complains.  In the meantime, at least we have a little privacy.

All of this “adjusting” has led to me not shooting for quite a while.  In fact, it’s now been nearly two weeks since I last had my camera out on a shoot.  This means I needed to come up with some photos to share today.

Thankfully, I have this wonderful feature called Photostream.  By subscribing to Apple’s iCloud service, whenever I take/upload a photo on one device, it automatically appears on all my devices.  That means all the silly photos I snap with my iPhone show up in Aperture on my macbook pro.

As it turns out, I have a whole collection of poor quality, but cute-as-a-button photos of my crazy dog and his girlfriend, Twiggy.  Tisen has been on steroids again for a couple of weeks now.  It makes him a little crazy.  That and having the woman he loves staying with us day in and day out.  He’s started showing off.

He doesn’t need to carry a toy with him when Twiggy is around.  If he takes one with him, he drops it as soon as we get outside and won’t carry it after that.  It’s as if he doesn’t think it’s manly.

While my iPhone photos don’t do the dogs justice, they still make me smile.

Still Fireworks

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I am 6.5 in dog years.  Is that old enough to use “old dog, new tricks” as an excuse for how long it’s taken me to experiment with some of the features of Aperture?

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I still resist learning Photoshop beyond the occasional attempt to use layers in Photoshop Elements.  I think there is some sort of message about life in this avoidance of adopting a technology that would give me more control over my photos and allow me to do things like put multiple fireworks bursts into a single image.  (My photos of multiple bursts are because there really were multiple bursts.)

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I think I’ve come up with the main reasons I resist this next step:

  • I’m at the point of “good enough” on how much time I want to spend on post-processing.  The more I can adjust, the more lost I get in trying to decide which way it looks better.  This is much like a story some of you may recall about taking my aunt (who had dementia) bra shopping.  She would try one on, then the next, and I’d ask, “Does this one feel better than that one?” and she would look at me, puzzled, and reply, “Did I try that one on?”  I finally bought her some sports bras figuring they would be “good enough” and get us out of an endless loop in the dressing room.  Similarly, without seeing two different adjustments side-by-side, I have a hard time deciding.

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  • I spend way too much time with devices already.  I’m beginning to think of my computers as people.  I caught myself talking to my work laptop the other day.  It’s a Windows machine, so I wasn’t saying very nice things.  I accidentally left my iPhone in the car last night when I ran into a restaurant to place a take out order.  I had to wait 10 minutes for the food.  It felt impossible to sit for 10 minutes with no friend in my pocket.  I felt exposed and lonely.  I decided against running out to get my iPhone, though.  I thought it might be good for me to wait without the distraction for once.  I was soon hypnotized watching muted sports castors talk about football.  I have no idea what they were saying since there were no captions, but it gave a surrogate for my iPhone.  See what I’m saying?

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  • I’m not confident Photoshop would make a significant difference in how much better my photos look for the price.  It’s expensive software both in dollars and time to learn.  Would I really be able to do so much more with my photos and would I have time to actually do those things that I would think, “Wow!  I’m so glad I spent that $700!”

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  • I suspect Photoshop is really a black hole.  Once you’re in, you can never get out.  The truth of the world is altered and you can never get back to your original reality.

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Visual Effects

At times like these, I wish I had the kind of job that could be blogged about.  I say this only because I have been spending way too many hours working the past few weeks and, as a result, am running out of more universally interesting things to write about.

Normally, I would have done enough shooting over the weekend to have brand new photos for you and stories to tell about them for the next five days.  Unfortunately, between my photography-free road trip on Saturday and working all day Sunday, I am out of new photos.

Even more frighteningly, I am nearly out of old photos I haven’t previously shared as well.

So, for today’s blog, I thought I would experiment with some old photos from our second trip to Mt. St. Helen.

It’s pretty amazing what can be done with a photo in even relatively simple photo editing software like Aperture, my personal favorite.  In today’s gallery, I’ve posted a series of photos that are quite similar.  I processed 3 exposures using the Photomatix HDR plug-in for Aperture and created two unique exports from Photomatix.  In the one, I used more natural-looking settings.  In the other, I used an “artistic” lighting effect that made the foreground and sky look lit differently.

Then, I used my standard post-processing adjustments on them in Aperture.  Mainly, I played with highlights and shadows and the levels.  Once this was done, I made a duplicate of each version and then tried something new.

The first image used a built-in effect for black and white with a red filter.  I also pulled the black point up–many greens disappeared into the shadows.  I experimented with different combinations of lifting the shadows and then raising the black point and finally settled on this one.  It’s dark and gloomy.  I hope it shows up OK for folks–sometimes photos look brighter to me on my iMac than they do after posting to my blog.

The other crazy thing I did was with the second duplicate.  I played with tint and saturation and took the photo to the point where I thought my eyes would bleed if I looked at it any longer.  Then, I backed it off to the brink of pain.

I have no explanation for why I did this.  It just looks too purple when I look at it now.  Perhaps I thought it was time to start exploring the possibilities instead of remaining stuck in reality.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it only took a slider control to add saturation, luminance, and vibrancy to real life?

Seaside Seagulls

From Cannon Beach, we drove North to Seaside.  Perhaps we needed to do a little more research and there is a really beautiful beach somewhere in Seaside.  However, what we found was a ridiculously overdeveloped tourist trap looming over a nondescript stretch of sand with more litter than we’d seen in downtown Portland.

Having just come from Cannon Beach, I was so unimpressed that I didn’t shoot a single beach scene.  Instead, I put my 100-400mm lens on and started shooting the gull stragglers that didn’t seem to know the gull party scene was down at Cannon.

Two observations about photography:

  1. While 100mm sometimes surprises me with how tight it really is when I point it at a landscape scene, 400mm always surprises me at how wide it really is when I point it at a bird.  Even a big bird that’s relatively close to me physically.
  2. Number 1 often leads me to shoot the eye of the bird near the middle of the frame to make cropping easier.  Unfortunately, by focusing both the lens and my brain on the eye of the bird, sometimes I all together lose sight of composition.

With regard to the first observation, the 4th photo in the gallery is the original, unadjusted image out-of-the-camera (other than having been converted to JPEG and greatly reduced in resolution for the purpose of posting).  As you can see, the gull appears quite far from the camera.  This isn’t helped by the fact that I was standing on an observation area raised well above the beach.

As for the second observation, it frustrates me when I sit down at my computer and look at my shots on my big bright screen and smack myself in the forehead and say, “Man–that would have been a great shot if . . . ”

For example, the young Herring Gull checking out its own shadow probably would have been a more interesting shot than the one I brought home.  I don’t know if he was actually checking out his shadow, but that’s the story the image would have told if I’d back up far enough to get the entire shadow of the bird into the frame.

Sometimes my husband walks up behind me and says, “Oh, that would have been great if you would have . . .” when I am reviewing images.  That’s even more frustrating.  A word of relationship advice:  if you’re in a relationship with a wannabe photographer, don’t ever say that.

As it is, these gulls gave me a good opportunity to expand my horizons a bit in Aperture.   Normally, I don’t do much beyond cropping, adjusting the levels, and balancing highlights and shadows.  The poor lonely Herring Gull looked like it really needed something more than that.  So, I played with edge blur and antique effects and Black and White.  Nothing ground breaking here, but it was fun.

Something New

Tonight I did something I’ve never done before.  I went to a photo critique.  I had no idea what to expect.  My fear was that the photos I brought were hopeless.  I didn’t bring perfect pictures.  I don’t have any of those.  But, I picked a few that I really felt I hadn’t done justice to.  A few where the subject was stunning–the kind of stunning that made my mouth drop open for a few seconds before I grabbed my camera.  Sadly for each image, when I loaded them onto my computer, I was disappointed with the results.  I felt like I’d missed something, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

We were only able to bring 3-4 images.  And of the 4 I brought, only 2 actually got critiqued.  But, I got enough pointers from watching and listening that I’m pretty happy with my newly adjusted versions of not only the two that were critiqued, but also the first one in the gallery.  The two that were critiqued show before and after versions.

Interestingly, the critique part was not really a critique.  It was more of a group PhotoShop effort.  The image was up on a big screen and people would suggest different adjustments to improve the image.  Sometimes it really made a difference and sometimes it didn’t.  When they got to my first image (the last one in the gallery), they all seemed at a loss.  Maybe they just aren’t as awestruck by sunbeams coming through clouds as I am.  I was disappointed that no one had any really good ideas on how to make the image pop.  Everyone assumed removing the contrails would be too difficult to attempt.

When I got home, I wasn’t willing to give up on that image.  I have to give Aperture a bit of a plug here.  It took me less than 2 minutes to remove the contrails using the “retouch” brush and letting Aperture auto-select what to use to replace the contrails with.  I was impressed with how easy that was.  What was harder was doing a burn on the clouds.  I spent some time trying to increase the difference between the clouds and the sky.  The image still doesn’t do the scene justice, but I feel like it’s getting closer.

The group really liked the other critiqued image.  I played with it based on their suggestions.  Seems like it’s quite grainy to me.  I tried noise reduction, but it still looks grainy.  I’m almost afraid to do any more adjustments to it in the fear that I’ll end up with a bowl of mush.  My fellow club members encouraged me to submit it for the quarterly photo competition.  I might just do that.  Another thing I’ve never done before.

Tisen was upset with me for about 2 minutes when I got home.  Then he returned to dozing on the sofa.  He seems to be getting used to me coming and going these days.

Love Looks

While processing the photos of my nephew (alias Sam) and his girlfriend (alias Ellie), I sighed and thought “Aww.  Young love!”  But when I flipped through some recent photos of my brother and my sister-in-law a few minutes later, I realized this had nothing to do with age.  My nephew’s face is just a younger version of my brother’s when they are with their respective partners.

It’s an interesting phenomenon.  Sam looks very little like my brother except when he’s around Ellie.  Then, it’s like his dissimilar features mold themselves into a shape that exactly resembles my brother’s face.  Who knew that falling in love could be hereditary?

But shooting both Ellie and Sam with one small strobe on an umbrella stand and in the confines of the family room proved to be challenging.

First, there was the issue of light.  Lighting one person is much easier than lighting two when there’s only one light.  Getting light on Ellie, sitting furthest from the light, was quite difficult.

This led to the second challenge, depth of field.  Opening up the aperture to try to overcome the shortage of light led to a very shallow depth of field, which led to portraits of one subject with another person in the frame instead of portraits of two people.  However, I still like some of the resulting images.

The need to shut the aperture down a bit to increase the depth of field to get Ellie and Same both in focus increased the problem created by the third challenge.  Because we of where Sam and Ellie were, traffic kept moving in and out of the room behind them.  Of course, some of the best expressions on their faces were in the shots with people behind them.  This led to extensive use of the “blur” brush to reduce the distracting background.  I am not fond of doing that much editing, but it’s my nephew.

It occurs to me that perhaps it would be easier if I could shoot in the same environment more than one time.  It’s hard to master something when there are so many variables changing each time.  But then again, it’s the variables that make it fun.

I think about photographers who have marks on the floor and who have their subjects go through a formula of poses.  I suppose this would be extremely efficient and may even help guarantee that the subject gets a decent portrait, but I don’t know how the photographer keeps from getting so bored s/he stops paying attention.  And what happens if someone comes in who just looks horrible in that particular set of poses?  Do they have formulas for such variables?

If there’s one lesson I’m sure of, I have a hard time paying attention to all the details when I feel rushed.  I guess I need to find someone who really wants to model for me.  And then, I need to take my time.  What’s that old expression?  Haste makes waste?

The Digital Dark Room

I have previously resisted editing photos, feeling like it’s cheating somehow.  However, when one of my photography mentors explained to me that “editing” RAW format pictures is like developing negatives in a  dark room, I started thinking about it differently.

Unfortunately, I find that processing photos is not a task I really enjoy.  For one, I spend the vast majority of my waking hours at a computer for work, having personal time end up on a computer as well is a little depressing.  Second, when I’m on the computer, I’m not out shooting.  But, the thing that I am beginning to realize is that part of what changes a photo from a form of documentation to a work of art is what the photographer does with it after the shot is taken.

It’s possible that I may need to bite the bullet and take a class in Photoshop at some point, but for now, I am content to play with Aperture and see if I can do what I need to do with it.  So far, the one thing I know enough to miss is how to layer together two shots into one.  I suspect Aperture doesn’t do that, but it’s possible I just haven’t found it yet.  That would be handy–outdoor shooting often leads to having to choose between an over-exposed sky or an under-exposed subject.  Being able to combine two shots would solve this problem.

For today, I decide to play with a shot from our recent trip to the Smokies.  This was taken from a “knob” where there was an endless panoramic view of the smokies surrounding us.  While there is something about the shot that appeals to me, it completely fails to look like what I want to convey.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but the gap between what I see in my mind and what I see in the photo is large.  Normally, I would just trash this photo and call it done.  But, because there is that little something there that I like, I decide this is a good candidate to start experimenting with.

As I stare at this photo and start making adjustments, I think about something my brother once said to me.  I showed him a photo I was processing  with and without a certain adjustment and asked him which he liked better.  He said (roughly), “Which one is more like what it actually looked like?  That’s the one that’s better.”  I suppose on the surface this seems like a logical way to look at it, but his statement has haunted me ever since.

First, what does something look like?  Is that an absolute that can be monitored and measured and set objectively in stone?  Second, is capturing what something looks like the real goal of photography?  As I ponder this, I realize that it’s not about “what it looks like;” it’s about what I saw.  What I saw is probably a massive brain computation starting with light reflected into my eyes but then processed in the context of my personal experiences, interests, filters, and openness.

What I want to show is a new way to see the same thing.  When photography moves into the realm of creativity, you stretch your mind so you don’t ignore the shimmering light off one small leaf, miss the shadow of a soaring hawk that suddenly appears in your frame, fail to see the contrasting shadows under each blade of grass.  It’s not about “what it looks like”; it’s about learning how to see in new ways.

Having that realization, I find myself wanting to push myself out of documenting mode and into creative mode.  And I’ve realized that by concentrating solely on my shooting skills (which still have a long way to go), I’m completely missing out on half the formula.  So, today, I turn to my computer and play with what I can do in the digital dark room.