Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New year, new opportunities

With the fast approaching end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 I am hopeful for lots of new opportunities in the coming year.

My blog is now firmly relocated on a new platform and the old URL is now successfully redirecting traffic here, so this blog will continue to grow in content - and hopefully readers.

Both Christmas and my birthday provided wonderful new tools for my photography in a full copy of Photomatix Pro 5 for HDR creation and a Lowepro Flipside 500AW to carry all my gear in.  My poor old Lowepro Stealth Reporter 200AW was woefully unable to carry a fraction of my gear and was proving bad for my shoulders and back with what I could squeeze into it.

I am planning lots more HDR work this year, both urban and natural world.  I am also growing very interested in trying out HDR Panoramas, especially since I have been reading up on the whole process and techniques.

HDR's are not the only photos I'll be taking though, as I will continue to explore all styles of photography.  I do know I have some portrait work coming up and also some product photos for my wife's Etsy site (while being "free" sessions, it is all good practice and helps build my portfolio).

One thing I would really like to do though is to continue to explore new avenues to making money with my photography.  Print sales are not bringing any profit and seems to be drying up as a revenue stream for a lot of photographers.

All in all I'm looking forward to the new year and all that it could bring in new opportunities and growth - not only for myself but for everyone else too.

Here's to 2014, may it be great for everyone!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Icy morning

It's been cold and icy here in Oklahoma.  We were hit with an ice storm recently and the temperature hasn't really been high enough for long enough to really melt it.

Amongst clearing up the mess it has made to an ornamental pear tree in my garden, I've been photographing different aspects of the ice (and will post some additional photos in another post).  Today was a little different as I had to go into Tulsa early this morning.  As I take my camera with me, there was some clouds in the sky and the sun was coming up, I took a few auto-brackets of the Tulsa skyline with some ice covered trees in the foreground.  It definitely gives an interesting look to the overall image, with a nice crispness to the scene.

Then for a different look I did a 90 degree turn and shot into the sunrise to capture this view:

I will say though that I was a little disappointed with the diffraction softening my focus on the building but overall I like the mixture of the warm tones from the sun and the colder tones from the ice.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In case you noticed a difference in post appearance

I wanted to make a quick post to explain why there is a difference in how my entries look prior to December 11th 2013.  Up until that date my blog resided on a different platform (QuickBlogCast to be precise) and I was experiencing technical issues that made it very difficult to make new entries as I was often unable to post images as part of my blog posts.

So, on December 11th 2013, I made the decision to export my entire blog (and cancel my subscription) and import everything to my newly created Blogger account.  As you can see by scrolling to "older" posts everything transferred well, with one exception; photographs and images are BIG and in some cases fill the browser window - while newer ones are automatically sized down and become clickable to view the full size version.

In all, this is a relatively minor issue but one I felt should be explained more fully as it does affect the overall look and feel of my blog.

It also explains why my Blogger version is not showing up in Google searches yet - it's only 8 days old.  Ah, the joys of SEO.........

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tripods - why so short?

I have to ask a rhetorical question about photography tripods, why do manufacturers make them so short?  It seems that everyone views ~50 inches as the preferred height for a fully extended tripod (without resorting to an extendable center column), which for someone shooting HDR bracketed shots is WAY too short, especially as an extendable center column is something that should never be used as it introduces too much instability and vibration.

I'm 6ft 1-ish and would really like a good tripod that has no center column and extends to at least 72 inches and that doesn't cost a ridiculous amount to buy in the first place.  Yes there are a few that get close to this spec, but their price gets way high in comparison to the "normal" tripods.

Currently my only real option for a more cost effective tripod that comes closest to my requirements would require me to approach the issue in an out of the box manner - and a little customization.  Surveyors tripods, the ones used with lasers, theodolites and other measuring equipment are available in heights of ~72 inches and have no center column.  They will however need to have an insert added to convert their attachment screw to one suitable for mounting a photo tripod head but these are readily available for around $20.  However, the one flaw in this idea is that the tripod legs are not individually adjustable for angle and/or spread - other than manually stomping the steel leg tip into the ground to secure the tripod in place.  Also, as they are fitted with heavy steel spikes, they are not going to be usable anywhere other than on soil without some kind of rubber cover being attached.

I still haven't decided if I'm going to experiment with a surveyors tripod yet but my point is, that if these companies can make tripods that meet (most of) my requirements and price them reasonably, why can't the photography tripod companies do similar.  That or some enterprising individual or company take a surveyors tripod and convert it (at reasonable cost) to a photo tripod with individually adjustable legs and exchangeable leg tips.  And by reasonable cost I mean something in the $150 - $250 price range.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mohawk Park redux

On November 10th I posted a LDR image of a HDR bracket set I took at Mohawk Park in Tulsa.  The image was processed in my "normal" tools of Photoshop to merge the images for HDR and Lightroom to post-process down to the LDR image.  At that time I was pretty happy with the result but as time passed and I found new tools and processing techniques, I found that I was not  so happy with the final image.

Today I finished re-processing the HDR bracketing images through ImageFuser and carried out a little post-processing in Lightroom to add a little punch to the finished LDR.  I'm a lot happier with this new image and it is much more natural in appearance and less "cooked".  While I like to boost things a little, I prefer to keep everything closer to reality.

Here is the new version so you can compare it with the other version, that is now resigned to my archive of techniques that didn't quite work.

I think you'l agree with me that this is a much better image than the previous version.  And going forward, this is more the "look" I will be producing in my HDR/LDR images.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Inexpensive but helpful tool

I recently purchased a TriggerTrap (www.triggertrap.com) cable to allow me to remotely fire my Nikon camera from the TriggerTrap application installed on my HTC One phone.  While the cable and app combo are a really great idea and work really well, it did raise one issue - namely what to do with my phone when doing long exposures or other automated firing.  Do I stand there and hold my phone, for how ever long it takes to fire all images or do I just let it hang there by the cable (and strain the connections)?  The much better solution would be to find some means of attaching my phone to either my camera or tripod.

Jump forward to about 1 month ago and I was in, of all places, my local Home Depot store and walking past a Christmas gift display of cellphone related items.  And that's where I spotted something called "Mobile Man", which is a rubber coated, flexible, person-shaped device to hold your cellphone and hang it off things via the hook at one end; a photo will show you what I mean better than my words, so here it is:

The entire thing has a flexible wire skeleton that allows it to be molded to shape/size to suit.  The hook means I can hang my phone from my tripod and and be secure in knowing it's not going to fall.  This little guy only cost around $5 which to me makes this a huge bargain and really hard to beat for anyone wanting a means to quickly attach their phone to a tripod.

Here's another photo with it actually holding my phone:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Working behind the scenes

While I may not have been taking many photographs lately, I’ve still been pretty busy behind the scenes.  I’ve been taking a closer look at different programs for creating HDR Images and tone mapping them to LDR files - free, open-source, shareware and commercial.  While my testing may not be as thorough as some of the major review sites, I carried out a side by side comparison of them all to see how they handled the same set of 9 auto-bracketed exposures.

The pictures in question were a pretty tough test due to it being of a tree, with the sun directly behind it shining into the lens.  And while the camera was mounted to a tripod, there was some movement to the branches and leaves from a slight breeze.

The programs I tested were:
  • Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop (my normal combo and benchmark)
  • Photomatix Pro 5 (trial copy)
  • HDR Expose 3 (trial copy)
  • LuminanceHDR
  • Hydra Pro (trial copy)
  • EnfuseGUI
  • ImageFuser
(behind the scenes were a few other command line tools that were used by the “FOSS” software - Enblend-Enfuse, Hugin, Libpano)

And the winner is………!!!!!!  Honestly, not that clear cut that I could pick one overall winner - for me that is.

The one with the best combination of ease of use, quality of results, image aligning, ghost removal and ability to ingest RAW files and able to export/save the 32bit HDR file would bePhotomatix Pro 5.  It is a commercial program and has a license fee but it is very reasonably priced.  I will be picking up a full version of this in the near future.

As for the free, open-source, shareware (FOSS) programs, my vote for the one with the most features and that worked for me and my files is ImageFuser.  The only things that let it down from being the ideal application is the lack of ghost removal and it’s limited exporting of the 32bit HDR files.  While this program is more of a photo merging application than a true HDR tone mapper, it produces really nice “natural” LDR images from my shots.  It also is the only one of the “FOSS” programs tested that had a fully working auto image alignment feature as well as the ability to correctly ingest RAW files from my Nikon.

There were a couple of issues I ran into that were deal breakers, for me personally, with a couple of the programs:
  • HDR Expose 3 has a tricky to use image alignment tool that, to me, is a lot harder to use than it needs to be when comparing it to other programs.  Which is a shame as this program has some nice features that I have not found in other programs - in particular the Veiling Glare tool.
  • LuminanceHDR would not work correctly with the RAW files out of my Nikon.  While it was able to read them, it was not reading them correctly and was producing badly exposed and wildly colored images.  Contacting the company via their Facebook page did not resolve this issue and their limited response did not include assistance in fixing the issue.  Also, I was not able to get the auto-image alignment feature to work - it kept giving an error that it was not setup, despite my having the “companion” tools installed.  And while the manual alignment was simple to use, I was not able to correct any complex alignment of the stacked images.
As for the remaining programs, here are my findings:
  • EnfuseGUI - while this uses the same "back-end" as ImageFuser, the images it produces are a lot more saturated. Also there is no alignment tool and no RAW file capability.  When used with aligned images and TIFF source files, this does produce wonderful images.
  • Hydra Pro - maximum image stack size of 5 files.  I often will have stacks of 9 images when there is a wide exposure range in the scene.  Maybe a minor issue due to not "needing" more than 5 images for an HDR but it does limit its appeal.  As for its output, I found it to be rather dull and no better than my base-line from Lightroom/Photoshop.
All in all, this was an interesting period of testing and I know what works (better) for me and the images I like/want to produce.  I will still be using Lightroom and Photoshop as the basis for my work but going forward I will also be using a combination of Photomatix and ImageFuser.  I’ll leave you now with the LDR image that ImageFuser produced as a part of this comparison testing.