Caverns and Tripods

One of my favorite shots of formations in the cave

One of my favorite shots of formations in the cave

Caves are dark.  Really dark.  In fact, the darkest places on earth.  They are one of the few places you can go where no light penetrates.  Of course, most cave tours don’t let you experience total darkness.  This would be a problem trying to make your way through the narrow, rocky path with slippery spots, tripping hazards, and so many places to hit your head that the guide has special names for the worst of them.

Sabre Tooth Tiger--definitely could have used a tripod

Sabre Tooth Tiger–definitely could have used a tripod

But, some cave tours do turn off the lights for a moment so you can experience what total darkness is really like.  The expression “can’t see your hand in front of your face” came from cavers.  It is absolutely true when you are in total darkness–you have to imagine  your hand is where you think it is because there is no visual confirmation.

The Iguana formation

The Iguana formation

Obviously, just about anything that contains the root “photo” in it doesn’t work in total darkness–photosynthesis, a photodiode, photoreactions, and certainly not photography.

After all, “photo” means light and when we’re talking about total darkness, we’re talking about rendering anything based on light useless.  Our own eyes as well as our cameras are unable to see anything in total darkness.

Mini-stalagtites growing from the ceiling

Mini-stalagtites growing from the ceiling

That said, I wasn’t trying to shoot in total darkness.  I was trying to shoot in the dim lights provided on the tour.  This isn’t much light.  There are a few choices to make in these conditions:

  1. Crank up the ISO setting as high as is tolerable.
  2. Sacrifice depth of field for a larger aperture opening to allow more light in.
  3. Use a flash.
  4. Use long exposures and set the camera on a tripod for sharpness.
Waterfall formation

Waterfall formation

I decided against choice 4.  While I could have asked to see if bringing along a tripod would be a problem, I felt there was too much risk of damaging formations and/or tripping over them if I were trying to carry my big, bulky tripod through the cave.

I brought a flash unit, but decided against using it because, in part, of the un-predictability of flash bouncing off strange shapes and formations.  Plus, I only had one flash and it was going to have to be on my camera.  I was confident I would not get the kind of lighting I needed from that.

Big room view

Big room view

I did open up the aperture a bit (from f/22 to f/16) to get a slightly faster shutter speed even if meant slightly less depth of field.  I definitely cranked up the ISO setting.  However, I drew the line at 8000 ISO.  Higher ISO settings get too noisy for my tastes, especially when the scene is quite dark.

This meant shutter speeds as slow as ⅖ of a second.  That may sound like barely an instant, but it’s actually quite challenging to hold a camera perfectly still that long.  In the end, I was mostly pleased with the images I got, but all would have benefitted from a tripod.



Night Time Renaissance

Bright moon, pink clouds, twilight sky--but too much wind

Bright moon, pink clouds, twilight sky–but too much wind

Sometimes at night the clouds lay low over the city and reflect back the light from the street lights below, luminous against the twilight blue sky.  Usually, the phenomena of having low-lying clouds with a clear sky above is accompanied by wind.

If there is no wind, the clouds don’t break up.  They lie like a blanket, impenetrable, creating only a haze of light that just isn’t as interesting as on windy nights.  On this particular night, not only was the wind blowing hard with the clouds breaking up nicely, but the moon was bobbing and weaving amongst the blowing clouds.

For this special effect, the assistance of Tisen was required--a surprise pull on the leash captured Tisen's own form of art

For this special effect, the assistance of Tisen was required–a surprise pull on the leash captured Tisen’s own form of art

Who could resist trying to get a photo of that?  Of course, Tisen also needed to go out, so being the multi-tasker that I am, I hung my DSLR around my neck and put Tisen’s collar around his.

While I always take my iPhone with me when I wander around Renaissance park, I had no intention of using it tonight.  The iPhone is a light hog, like all digital cameras with tiny sensors.  Getting a night time image with an iPhone isn’t something I’ve figured out how to do and this wasn’t going to be the night I tried again.

Shot while swaying with a post I was trying to lean on for stability

Shot while swaying with a post I was trying to lean on for stability

I’m glad I didn’t bother trying with the iPhone.  With my DSLR set on ISO 10,000, I was still shooting at shutter speeds over 3 seconds long.  This is because I was being greedy.  I wanted lots of depth of field, which meant sacrificing light to get it.

This may not have been the best decision.  Armed with my camera and with my tripod tucked neatly in the closet back at home, I was buffeted about in the wind like a human sail.  I tried leaning against a light pole and discovered the light pole was also blowing in the wind.  We swayed together as I contemplated the hopelessness of getting a good shot in these conditions.

Closer to still, if only the clouds would have paused

Closer to still, if only the clouds would have paused

I remembered some of the lessons I learned about wind from hang gliding.  First and foremost, it cycles.  If you stand still and pay attention, you’ll feel it start to ease up until it will suddenly drop and be still.  Sometimes this lasts only a split second.  Sometimes it lasts several seconds.  I needed 3 second windows of calm to get any sharp photos.

To make matters more difficult, the wind tossing the clouds was blowing at a much steadier pace, keeping the clouds blowing across my frame during the exposure.  Even the plants in the foreground weren’t settling down when the breeze would briefly die.  Everything was in motion.  There were to be no sharp shots that night.

This is my favorite--the effect of the wind blowing everything in the long exposure reminds me of an impressionist painting

This is my favorite–the effect of the wind blowing everything in the long exposure reminds me of an impressionist painting

Tisen was happy to return to the indoors–the wind was cold and Tisen’s leg is sore.  He has created yet another hot spot because of his allergies.  We are treating it topically for the time being in the hope of avoiding more steroids.  The pink self-sticking tape was hard to resist–he looks so cute in pink.

Tisen spent most of the day napping--he managed to wake up long enough to yawn mid-day

Tisen spent most of the day napping–he managed to wake up long enough to yawn mid-day

I got one pose out of him before he went back to sleep

I got one pose out of him before he went back to sleep


Let Your Colors Burst

As it turns out, the next shoot I did after the Mainx24 Parade was yet another parade.  Since I’m not ready to blog about another parade yet, I thought I would jump to the end of the evening and go with the fireworks display that closed the holiday celebration.

I always see these fantastic fireworks shots that have zero smoke in them and just streaks of color shooting across the sky.  I don’t know how they get those shots.  I’ve spent a little time searching for tips on how to prevent smoke, but none of them seem to help much other than the possibility of doing something in post processing to darken the smoke so it blends in better.  I guess I will have to experiment.

As it is, the video was made from the 550+ shots with no post-processing.  I will pick a few for post-processing later.  Today, I was only up for making a movie.

The irony of me making a movie out of my stills is that my camera will shoot video.  I have used it to shoot a video once so far.  I didn’t think I could see well enough to focus manually and I found the autofocus function quite disruptive.  I also discovered iMovie, the only video editing software I have, removed the feature to easily capture stills from video, so you have to go through a couple extra hoops and use another application to get a still from video.  I find this annoying.  Since I generally want stills, it seems easier to shoot stills and make a movie later if I want a video.

I didn’t plan to shoot the fireworks.  I just happen to have a great view of them from my balcony and it seemed a waste not to shoot them.  I did several things wrong during the shoot.

First, forgive me for repeating myself, I didn’t plan to shoot the fireworks. As a last minute decision, I was rushing to get setup on the balcony and failed to notice in the dark that I had part of the top of the balcony in the frame.  This is going to result in more cropping than I planned for.

Second, about half way through the show, I couldn’t remember if I had focused at any point or not.  This is not the time to have memory failure.  Although, I suppose it is better than at the end of the show.  I couldn’t really notice when the focus changed in the video, but the background buildings look blurry.

Third, I forgot to change the ISO setting from shooting very dark scenes and trying to get a faster shutter speed.  This led to much shorter shutter speeds than I would have liked.

Finally, I also forgot to set it on aperture priority and I was shooting so fast, I didn’t check the images.  Alas, I blew out the images with really bright bursts.

Other than that, my shots are great.  🙂

HDR Life Lessons

Between “feeling puny” (as a former relative used to say) and being caught off guard by the early sunset (I somehow failed to notice that the sunset an hour earlier yesterday), I didn’t make it out to do a new shoot today.

But, never fear!  I have new photos to share.  I did a series of 5 exposures each of two compositions from the balcony at the same time I shot the images I posted yesterday.  These were just taken later in the shoot.

I included 3 images for comparison for each composition.  The first is exposed based on what the camera thinks is the correct exposure.  The second is under exposed by 1 stop.  I included the second image because I am particularly drawn to the high contrast of post-sunset skies at this exposure level.  To me, it looks the most like reality.  However, the buildings and landscape features get completely clipped at this exposure and I’d like to have a more detail in the landscape below the sky.

Since I shot 5 exposures, I thought I’d give HDR a try.

Even when I was shooting the 5 exposures, I knew HDR was going to be a long shot.  Literally.  By the time I got to the over-exposed images, the exposure times were multiple seconds.  The wind was blowing at about 15 miles per hour on the ground and who knows how fast higher up.  I could stand there and watch the clouds moving faster than a multi-second exposure.  Rapidly-moving clouds blur in long exposures.  Even the under-exposed image shows some blurring; the over-exposed images turn the clouds into undefined wisps.

But, I’m slightly feverish, so I have a good excuse to think it might create something interesting anyway.  I selected the options to remove ghosts and noise and to align the images when I processed the 5 exposures.  The third image is the result.

Photomatix got confused when it tried to align things and remove ghosts because of the differences in the amount of blurring between the multiple exposures.  So, the really dark clouds turned into floating dark blobs.  It actually did a better job than I predicted, so kudos to Photomatix.

The second series of photos is a different composition, but otherwise the same as the first series.  Same results.

I guess today’s life lesson from photography is that even though a camera can capture many moments in a single image and HDR processing can multiply that effect, sometimes we really are better off just enjoying each moment individually.

As a side note, Nurse Tisen seems to be ready for retirement.  Moving from the couch back to my office chair has him convinced I’m no longer in need of special attention. It was all I could do to keep him at a normal walking pace when I took him outside today.  Tomorrow he’s going to doggie daycare so he can run around.

Night Moves

I don’t know much about event shooting (besides the fact that it makes me nervous), but I figured having some photos of the crowd would be a good thing.  Since the crowd at the Acres of Darkness event was standing in line for the haunted trail, I figured that’s where I needed to be.

This presented a special challenge:  Large groups of people clumped along a line that spanned about 50 yards.  Add to that, ridiculously little light.  Even with my ISO setting all the way up to 25600, with an aperture of f/22, I needed a 1.3 second shutter speed to get the shot of the line.

Funny, I don’t remember ISO 25600 being in the table of reciprocal settings to get the same exposure with different ISO, shutter speed, and aperture combinations.  I still shake my head, remembering how excited my dad was when he discovered 800 ISO film.

In any case, getting 50ish people strung out in a line to all hold still for 1.3 seconds was not an option.  I experimented with even longer shutter speeds to see how much blur I got and whether I liked the effect or not.  I like the mood the slight blurring creates for the halloween theme quite a bit, actually.  The motion makes it seem more interesting somehow.

I might have gotten a bit carried away when I decided to try to create ghost images as people entered the trail.  I asked several groups to “slow walk” as they started down the trail in the hope of creating some really great apparitions.  This didn’t work out so well.  The people created more of a haze in my image instead of actual ghosts.  Next time, I will have them stand still for approximately 1/2 the time my shutter is open and see if that creates more of the effect I’m looking for.

On a more positive note, I added an entertainment factor no one expected.  The people I asked to slow walk turned the assignment into the hokey pokey, robot moves, imitations of the 6 million dollar man (although I’m not sure any of them were old enough to have heard of him), and even a brief line dance.  I, on the other hand, did not do any dancing.

I find it an interesting psychological experiment:  ask people to perform and unusual but simple task and their self-consciousness causes them to turn it into something more usual, like dancing.  Or, maybe it’s more of an act of embracing a moment of silliness and just rolling with it?  Whichever the case, we all laughed a lot.

Being There

Finally, after much anticipation, the big event–my nephew’s graduation day.  Of course, it wouldn’t be my family if we didn’t have a debate as to the necessity of celebrating high school graduation by going to a ceremony.  My family doesn’t require a reason for a debate.  If there’s a question to be asked, someone asks it.  If Hamlet were my relative, he wouldn’t have asked “to be or not to be.” He would have asked, “I am.  But why?  And is it really all that important?”

In any case, we had a pleasant surprise when Sam and Ellie appeared at the house at about 2PM in the afternoon (they were supposed to be at school).  This afforded us the opportunity to take some more pictures!

We gathered in the front yard and I set up my umbrella stand.  This is when I learned about why photographers own sand bags.  Having been a huge fan of Mary Poppins, I was only disappointed that it wasn’t strong enough to carry me away.

Fortunately, with 8 people standing around, it was much easier to find an assistant than a sand bag.

I went through the standard combinations:  Grad with his girlfriend.  Grad with his grandparents.  Grad with his parents.  Grad with his brother.   I’ve really got to start paying attention to group photos to figure out some better poses–I really am horrible at directing people on where and how to stand.

After finishing up pictures, the grads went on their way and we started getting ready to meet them at graduation.  We had a grand plan with three of us going an hour earlier than the rest to get good seats.  However, I got confused on what time we were leaving and we were 15 minutes late.  Then, we stopped to grab food on the way.  When we got there, the best seats left were up behind the stage.  We had a good view of Sam’s seat, but not of the stage since we were behind it.

Having shot my older nephew at the same place 2 years ago, I decided to try to improve on my shots by adding a teleconverter to my 100-400mm lens to try to get tighter on Sam than I was able to on his brother.  This was a fatal mistake.

I have tried to remind myself when choosing lenses to ask whether light or length was more important.  In this case, both were.  However, the loss of light caused by adding the teleconverter was critical.  Few of the shots taken with it on worked–I had too much motion blur because of too slow a shutter speed.

I was very sad about my failure at getting tighter shots, but I did take the teleconverter off just in time for Ellie’s walk across the stage.

After the ceremony, as we searched for the parked car, the sky was so cool, I had to stop and take a shot while everyone else looked for the car.

Hunting Herons

After attending a photography workshop in the morning and volunteer training at the Audubon Society in the afternoon, I decided spending some time shooting would be a nice way to end the day.

Tisen, feeling better after his bout of upset stomach, and I packed up and headed on over to the park.  I can’t decide what I want to shoot today, so I take everything I own.  Worst case, I get some extra exercise, although the sofa is a little unwieldy  😉

When we arrive at the entrance to the park, a blue bird flies over my head.  I haven’t even taken my camera out of the bag yet!  I stop right there and get out my camera and opt for the 100-400mm lens, deciding I’ve been neglecting it since getting the 70-200mm lens.  Besides, I could use the extra length for birds.

Of course the blue bird is long gone.  I guess that’s what I get for letting fate decide what kind of shooting I’m going to do.

We head on down towards the wetland.  When we get there, a great blue heron is stalking the water.  I hand hold the camera for a change–it feels strange in my hands having worked on a tripod so much lately.

Tisen and I walk around to the shore of the wetland to see if I can get a better angle on the heron.  On the way, some people eye my lens and ask if I’m taking pictures of the wedding. Confused, I explain I was shooting a blue heron and the people laugh.  I look around and see a bride and groom disappearing down the path.  Is it funny that I am more attracted to birds than brides?

The blue heron stalks a fish, coming up onto the shore and then back down into the water.  It hangs out for awhile on the way, peeking at me from between blades of tall grass.  It amazes me how a giant, blue bird that resembles a pterodactyl can disappear amongst blades of grass.

As he wades through the water, moving in slow motion, he crouches until he suddenly strikes and nabs a fish.  I missed the strike with this one, but, lucky me, I get to try a second time when another blue heron hunts on the other side of the wetland.

One thing I learned is that a shutter speed of 1/250 is not fast enough to stop the motion of a striking heron!

Unfortunately, he turns away from me to swallow the fish and I only get a view after the fish is deep in his gullet.  Both heron give themselves a big shake after a hunt–it reminds me somehow of Tisen marking a tree after having an encounter with another dog.

Sorry for the excessive number of pictures, but I love the succession of the second heron crouching lower and lower next to his reflection in the water until he strikes.  Just for fun, a movie version:

My Cloudy Clouds

I have been studying clouds quite a bit lately.  Not only am I obsessed with getting a landscape shot with sharply focused clouds from front to back, but I am also learning how clouds help predict changes in weather, which is helpful in hang gliding.  Apparently hang gliding pilots are the best weather (wo)men–at least the ones who survive.

Plus, I just like clouds.  Who doesn’t really?  There’s something fascinating about the way they swirl and swoosh and dissolve in front of our eyes.

When it comes to my photographic goals with clouds, I’ve come to several conclusions.

  1. A fast shutter speed freezes the movement caused by wind.
  2. A small aperture is essential for expansive clouds that range from front to back in the frame.
  3. Lower ISO settings prevent graininess that can make clouds look less sharp.
  4. All of the above makes it very difficult to get sharp looking clouds in low light.
  5. Finding a focus point about 1/3 of the depth keeps things sharp front to back.
  6. Even if you do everything perfectly, the clouds may not be sharp in real life.

Number 6 is my latest discovery in my endeavor to capture sharply focused clouds.  Given that “cloudy” is used to mean “1. lacking definite form or limits” and blurred is considered a synonym for “cloudy,” this might have occurred to me sooner.

I find myself relieved to realize that my images are, in some cases, every bit as sharp as the clouds themselves were.  I have been walking Tisen through the park gazing upwards, smiling at the blurry looking clouds.  I try to pretend I’m bird watching so bystanders don’t think I’m crazy.  I’m not sure it helps.

For today’s experiment, I tested this theory.  I went up on the roof and got some shots of the sunset.  I found an angle that had parts of a roof top in the very near foreground that angles away from the camera towards a ridge line in the mid-depth of the photo and then a second ridge further back.  I figured this gives me landmarks so I can tell if I have depth of field even if the clouds appear blurry.

I also looked carefully at the clouds and determined that they hurt my eyes when I try to bring them into focus just with my eyes–especially the dark, large, foreground mist.

In post processing, I lifted the shadows beyond my personal preference in the first shot just to be able to see the sharpness of the focus better:

I look at the landmarks at each distance through the loupe in Aperture at 200%.  They are acceptably sharp.  Perhaps they could be sharper if I were shooting more towards the middle of the aperture range for my lens, but there is no discernible difference in the level of sharpness between the foreground and the background.  This makes me happy.

I can now stop calling myself names for having cloudy looking clouds.

Shooting the Breeze

Today, I continue my quest to graduate from a 101 use of depth of field to, well, I’d like to jump up to a 400-level given it seems I’m not going to get a great shot before I die if I continue at this pace.

I was hoping for a nice sunset to play with–there are always so many interesting clouds.  I would really like to figure out how to get the clouds sharp from front to back in the image.

So, that is my assignment for today:  sharp clouds front to back.

As I gather up my gear to head up to the roof, I feel like I am doing a scene written for Chevy Chase or Tim Conway.  I pick up my tripod, swing it around and knock a glass off a table.  I set it down and trip over the leg.  I pull myself together, clean up, and then become frantic trying to find the radio trigger for my wireless remote (which mysteriously and thankfully started working again).

I wish I had a video of me darting back and forth looking fearfully over my shoulder out the windows at the fading light.  I run into two door frames, a door knob, and trip a second time over my tripod leg in the process.

I am considering changing the name of my blog to “Bumbling Photography.”

When I get all my stuff together, Pat puts a bowl of food down for Tisen, which means I have to stay until he’s done eating or he won’t eat his dinner.  I watch him eat.  He’s pretty into it, so I decide to sneak down the hall.  Tisen pokes his head around the corner only seconds later and I pretend to be setting up my tripod in the hallway.  Tisen stares at me.  I leave the tripod where it is and then return to the kitchen until Tisen finishes eating.

Finally, up on the roof I realize I haven’t missed much.  The light is not very dramatic, although the clouds will still work for my assignment.

I’ve identified two possible causes for inadequate depth of field in my landscape photos:  1) not consciously choosing an aperture based on the depth of field I want, and 2) focusing too far back in the field of view.  Tonight, I learn that maybe my lack of skill is not the only reason.

Those clouds are moving.  And I don’t mean crawling along.  I mean hauling across the sky like they’ve got somewhere to be.  Given the amount of light, stopping down for good depth of field means slowing the shutter speed to speeds like 2 seconds to get what the camera thinks is a good exposure at 400 ISO.  I play with balancing ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to see if I can get something that gives me enough exposure, enough depth of field, and enough speed to stop the motion.  I really thought it was going to be easier!

Just for fun:

Ghosts Among Us and Family Fun

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, a few creatures were stirring, using a mouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, stuffed to the brim ‘cuz Mom and Dad were already there.

The children were texting all over the house, while clicking on iPhones in browsers with a mouse.

And I with my camera, perched on a tripod, stealing photos, but leaving the iPods.

When off of the couch my nephew did rise, creating a blur right before my eyes,

I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter, adjusting the camera before my nephews could dash, I opened the shutter and turned off the flash.

The movement of people and an open shutter created enough ghosts to make me shudder.

When what to my jaded self did appear, but silliness, laughter, and even a happy tear.

While photography is a solitary past time for most photography addicts, there are certain effects that are just good family fun.  This Christmas, I set up my camera on my tripod (since I finally bought a good one, I thought I should get some use out of it) and used my remote to occasionally snap photos.  However, because I wanted to be stealthy about my shooting, I didn’t use the flash.  As a result, I had to use a slow shutter speed in the low light around the tree.  While I’m not sure my family has enough photo-tolerance to hold still for pictures anyway, the fact that they often didn’t know when the camera was shooting prevented them from trying.

As a result, I got a bunch of blurred shots that lead us to downright silliness in trying to create ghost images in the shots.

This turned into a game of trying to create the best ghost effect in the shot, at least for everyone except my oldest nephew, who was too busy texting to be silly.  The two photos included here were the best of the lot.  Both pictures have 7 people in them.  I like the first one because the “ghost” images on the left look like they’re dancing (or perhaps trying to dance but not exactly succeeding).  I like the second one because my youngest nephew successfully created a ghost boy looking over the shoulder of my older nephew.

Who knew photography could replace charades for family games?