Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Time and Panoramas

First off, where has the time gone? I can't believe how long it's been since I last wrote anything here; life just seemed to keep getting between me, photography and this blog.

I've kept myself pretty busy though and am delving into the world of panoramic photography. Helped out, along the way, by my purchase of a Nodal Ninja head, rotator and leveling head; then topped off by finding a great deal on a "like new" 8mm fish-eye lens. Not that I won't be experimenting with some longer lenses to produce some "giga-pixel" style partial panoramas. Add in some plans to experiment with some HDR work too and I have enough experimenting to keep me busy for quite some time.

Along the way I did run into some obstacles, not that they weren't fixable, but all they did as slow me a little. The first was the need to learn yet more software - plus, should I keep working with open-source (free) software or find the money for a commercial package. I'm currently still using Hugin on my Mac for stitching the panos together and other than a few issues to overcome (wonky control points, zeniths and/or nadirs not stitching, wonky horizons) it's doing a pretty great job of pulling the shots together.

Of course, one big issue with panoramic shots, especially the circular 360 ones is how best to display them. If you just post them "flat" on a webpage they look weird and distorted. And as not everyone has access to a dedicated viewer; I signed up to try out a couple of dedicated hosting sites. Long story short, due to some issues with sizing and format, all my panoramic work to date is posted to my profile on www.360cities.net and as they offer the option for embed codes, I hopefully will be able to share them here. If not, I do know how to convert them to Google Photospheres which I believe can be self contained.

Path To Linnaeus Teaching Gardens

Here is an embedded version of one of my latest panoramas, which includes a link to my profile on 360cities.

While on the subject of 360cities, it's pretty nice having the ability to geo-tag the photos, and have the ability to have them featured on Google Earth. This did, however, throw a challenge my way. I very soon found the shortcomings of the GPS feature on my cellphone (and all cellphones) - they're not very accurate. A lot of it comes down to the app you use, so after a lot of testing I found one that can locate me to within 10 feet of my actual position; or at least it was doing that in my tests. The real challenge will be accurately tag my position when I'm off in the middle of nowhere, especially when there's no cellphone signal. Did you know that cellphones use their cell tower triangulation signal to boost the GPS accuracy? I didn't until just recently. If push comes to shove I will just look to picking up a full blown, standalone GPS unit as I know there are locations I want to photograph that have little to no cellphone signal (such as parts of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state).

Guess I should sign off for now, get some sleep, then plan my next photo session. Then test out my updated GPS app for geo-tagging the shots and get some more panoramas in my profile.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Road Trip

I recently did my first "great American road trip" (or at least my version of it) and drove from Oklahoma out to the Pacific Northwest, to visit Oregon (and then extended it on to include Washington).

We were pushed for space due to using my wife's small 4-dr sedan (as my Subaru is having some issues) so was not able to take a very large amount of camera gear. In fact it was a very minimalist setup of my D2x body (and charger), Tokina 12-24 f/4, Rogue ExpoDisc and a cleaning kit. I also had my little Sony WX350.

As I was doing the bulk of the driving, I didn't take very many road/road-side photos; so it wasn't until we got to Oregon that I got a chance to break out a camera and take some photos. We spent 3 days in Portland, staying in a tiny house hotel and exploring the area.

After our 3 days it was time to decide on what to do next. We still had over 1 week of vacation to go and on a whim decided to head north and check out Washington. Originally we were considering checking out Seattle but instead chose to follow the 101 and head towards the Olympic Peninsula.

For the next 3 nights we stayed in a KOA campsite near Port Angeles. We didn't get to explore the area as much as we would have liked but Port Angeles is a great place and we plan on returning, sometime to spend more time and explore it fully. The small matter of pets not being allowed on the park trails limited our options some, as we had our two dogs with us.

A handheld pano of Port Angeles' waterfront
Being mindful of time, as we had to insure we got back to Oklahoma on time, we decided to move on after the 3 days were up. Our next destination was Neah Bay as we wanted to check out Cape Flattery and Tatoosh Island. All I can say is "WOW", it is more than worth the hike out to the cape for the views you are presented with. Here are a few photos taken with both my cameras of the cape and island.

View to the west of the cape, with a fog bank heading to shore
Blanketed by fog
More foggy views
This was just to the north-east side of the cape, before the fog bank came ashore
A view of Tatoosh Island (and lighthouse) while blanketed by fog
Here is a closer shot of the lighthouse on Tatoosh Island
A handheld pano of Tatoosh Island, from Cape Flattery
From here we handed (generally) south and camped overnight at the Mora campground near Forks. It was amazing to be amongst so many old and tall trees - and also to have no sound but the wind in through the trees and local wildlife; and the occasional noisy campground neighbor. I had to take a photo of where we camped as the large trees behind our tent were something to see.

Our campsite at Mora
Waking up in the shadow of those trees was something to experience - it was also our 15th anniversary, which just added to the occasion.

As we were fairly close (and it was in the general direction we were headed) we took a detour to check out the Hoh Rainforest. All I can say here is I can see why Mick Dodge loves the place so much; great guy too, as we found out when we bumped into him at the ranger station. What a bonus for our anniversary - and yes, we got a photo with him! I actually didn't take photos while there as I was too in awe of the natural beauty. A photographer could spend years documenting the rain forest and I knew in our brief visit I would barely do it justice.

Next stop was Ruby Beach, as we wanted to visit the Pacific Ocean and dip our toes - and let our two dogs dip their paws. We had a bit more in the way of fog over the water but it was still amazing to step out onto the beach and experience the ocean.

A handheld pano looking out onto Ruby Beach and the Pacific Ocean
Jax and Amber avoiding the Pacific as the waves unsettled them
And yes we did all dip our toes and it was COLD! It definitely woke us up and both Jax and Amber made every effort to avoid the waves from there on out.

From here we headed to another KOA campground for the night and as we found out later, we were not too far from Mount St. Helens.

Can anyone guess what we decided to do for our last day in Washington? Yeah, we drove up to the ranger station overlooking Mount St. Helens and the views were amazing. If you're in the area it is well worth the drive to go and visit.

Mount St. Helens
Handheld pano of Mount St. Helens
To say I will return to Washington is an understatement as I absolutely loved the place and next time I will have a much more comprehensive photo setup with me - including a Nodal Ninja pano head for my Nikon. One of my goals is to make some HDR and Giga-Pixel panos of Mount St. Helens, and of Cape Flattery/Tatoosh Island.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Minimalism - or lightening the load

Partially on the behest of my aching shoulder, I have recently started looking more closely at ways to carry less gear while out and about, while still being able to effectively take/make photographs. Now, before I go much further I do want to clarify that I am not about to get rid of my Nikon dSLR; although on my next "refresh" I may downsize the body.
What I have been doing meshes with the saying, the best camera is the one you have with you. And with that being my Sony  WX350, or my HTC One, I just needed to look at options for editing on the go. Now luckily for me, Adobe recently released a mobile version of Lightroom that runs on Android. Now I know some of you are wondering "why is he not using iOS?"; especially as he has a Macbook Pro. Well, long story short, I have a large investment into the Android platform and prefer the products. Which I just expanded on by purchasing a Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet (the one with the funky camera). With the Sony camera, the Dell tablet and Light room I have a pocket sized digital photo setup with higher quality than a cell phone. And it's pretty liberating to not be weighed down with gear, unless I choose to be.
While on the subject of the Dell tablet, I have to comment on the camera. Now, while I'm not likely to use the tablet for taking photographs (outside of ID photos for model releases), it's lightfield (think Lytro) depth enabled features do provide a very interesting set of options for creative experimenting. The tablet is equipped with 3 lenses, which work together to create three images that are combined in software to create a photo that you can change the focus point of after the fact; it also allows selective de-focus (blur). While this sounds good, in practice the software is a little heavy handed on the image processing. It is best to not dial the de-focus up too high or you will get patchy results. This is early days and I am hoping that future releases of the software will improve the processing and that the technology continues to improve.

To give you an example of what is possible with the tablet's camera, here is an example of one of my first experiments with it - please excuse the photo frame, I was also experimenting with the built-in photo editing software.

I have to say that I am enjoying trying new things and experimenting with my photography again. There is a time and place to be all serious and business-like, and other than that just enjoy what you are doing regardless of how it turns out. It's only by experimenting (success or failure) that we can grow artistically.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Self doubt and working through it

Ah, the bane of the creative mind; self doubt. So many times we are our own worst enemy and our internal dialog goes from figuring out how to do something to questioning why we are even trying in the first place. And this is when our creativity tends to dry up, which just compounds the issue and gives weight to the voices of doubt. Of course, what doesn't help is that we are not only our own harshest critics, we also tend to strive for that elusive 'perfection'...something that if I'm being honest, is a huge stumbling block that will never be achievable without having the courage to make mistakes; as it's from making mistakes that we can truly grow as artists. But that pursuit of perfection, when combined with a unhealthy dose of self doubt will guarantee one outcome - the 'death' of your creativity.

I know, that's quite some intro into this blog post and kind of 'heavy' but I know I'm not alone in all this; and it doesn't just effect photographers. It doesn't just effect me in my photography, as I experience it is my other life, in I.T where I'm a Service-Now administrator. And it was as a part of this other life that recently saw me spending a week in Las Vegas for a big conference (and some training classes), where I took a little break from shooting with my Nikon gear; too big and cumbersome to take with me, on top of everything else I had to take. That and it wasn't like I would really have a lot of time to be a photographer. So I decided to just be a 'tourist' and took a small Sony point-and-shoot and have fun.

The Sony in question is a Cybershot DSC-WX350 with a 20x optical zoom; the first thing I did was to disable the digital zoom as I knew it would already be limited in image quality (as apposed to my dSLR) due to the smaller sensor and small aperture range. But other than that I just wanted to take some pictures and not care too much if they were blurry, grainy or otherwise poor quality; I had no plans to try and market them in any way. It was a chance to shoot whatever I felt like and not care about anything but having fun.

I will say it was pretty cool being able to just pop the Sony in my pocket and have it with me at all times. I even used it as a visual note taker during classes and presentations - which was a pretty useful feature. Hell, I even did something I have NEVER done before in all my time as a photographer...I set it to P (program) and let the camera make all the decisions for me. And do you know what, I don't (didn't) care! I tend to other think a lot of my photography, so it was liberating to not have to think above pointing the camera, framing/zooming and pushing the shutter button. Now, will I ever do that with my Nikon? Hell no! Where that beast is concerned, I'm a control freak and won't automate it above Aperture or Shutter Priority - or where my flash work is concerned, I'm in Manual mode. But for that week at least, I spent a lot of the time in P mode and took photos, lots of them and had a blast.  And more importantly, there was no nagging internal voice questioning my actions, berating my work for not being perfect or criticizing my work in any way. And that is the point about this whole post; we all need to step back and take a break, and just have fun with our art. So what if the photos are not perfectly focused, framed, lit, composed, grain free or so sharp you can cut yourself on them; because photos like that are often so spread out in your career that you have to accept that a good chunk of your time will be spent dealing with imperfection, that the great photos will really stand out when you make them.

Embrace the imperfection because in doing so, you will grow as a photographer and you will keep moving towards making better photographs, because it's only in taking lots of photo that you will improve yourself. Make mistakes, make lots of them...and above all, enjoy what you are doing.

Here is a photo taken at the House of Blues, in the Mandalay Bay hotel, taken with my Sony DSC-WX350.

And here is a couple taken while I wandered the Vegas strip, enjoying the sights and atmosphere.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What I've been up to

Been a little while since my last post here, partially because my (7:30am-4:30pm) other job has been taking more of my time; it can be hard finding time to run two jobs. I also ran into a "small" issue when attempting to use the ROES interface for an online photo lab - namely it did not want to work properly on my MacBook Pro.

I know that the computer world evolves at a very accelerated pace and so too do the best operating procedures, but it's been some time now that the general advise is to NOT run as the Administrator account for day-to-day things; and this is how I have my Mac setup. I have a "user" profile where all my photo software, photo files and everything else resides, and I have a separate admin account for when I need to run things at a higher system level. I very rarely log in as the admin as the usual procedure is to just authenticate my admin login when prompted. Now you are probably wondering where I am going with this AND how it relates to photography; the answer to this question is ROES or Remote Order Entry System. It is the system that the majority of online labs use for photographers to submit there work for printing.

I had signed up with an online lab, created my account, downloaded the ROES software and started the install. The software started to install then stopped - while attempting to download some settings. Okay, maybe I got a bad install package - delete it and download again. Still did the same thing at the same point in the install. Thinking that it may just be an "older style" installer that only works when in the admin account (still find this occasionally), I logged into the admin account and it installed. Great, finally have it installed so time to go back to my user account and try it out. Once I'm logged back in, I launch the ROES app and - nothing! It won't launch. For whatever reason, it will only run if I'm using my admin account; which is not something I intend to do as it is not safe computer user behavior. I do not intend to operate under the admin account just to order prints when all my photo items are sitting over on my user account - and would need to be shuffled around to allow access from the admin account.

Now fast forward to today, where as I type this post, I am finalizing the setup of a new online lab account with a different ROES package. One where I had tested their regular ROES package to insure it worked correctly - and it did. So, being hopeful, I signed up for their Pro service and am currently installing their Pro version. And guess what? It doesn't want to install. Dammit! What is going on? I have photos I need to get printed and this is getting ridiculous.

Not sure if this is a Mac OSX issue, a Java issue, or a ROES issue. Whatever the issue is, I am currently not able to do any online ordering. Which is not helping my photo business or my mood. Guess it's time to investigate this further and try to get it resolved.

And to finish this post out, I do have some more positive photo relate news. I will be making a business trip (for non-photo work) shortly and decided to pick up a small point-and-shoot camera to pop in my pocket while away. Was really surprised at how small they are now - it's smaller than my phone! Will be really interested to see how it performs and I'll report back on how well it performs in a later post.

As of 1:20pm I finally have ROES installed and running. To achieve this I ignored the installer's instructions to double-click the app to install; instead I manually dragged it to my Applications folder. Doing this, the authentication window popped up and once I authenticated, everything installed correctly - and it runs correctly too, in my User profile.

So, any photographers running Mac OSX and not able to install ROES, just drag/drop the app to your Applications folder and you should be good to go.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

New portrait shoot

I recently undertook a portrait shoot as a part of a free giveaway I held on my Facebook page. This one was a little different in that my model wanted to hold the shoot at a library or bookstore as they are an aspiring author and wanted to be surrounded by books. Fortunately, the local bookstore I approached as the venue was very amenable and agreed to us holding the shoot on their premises.

I'm still pretty new to the whole portrait shoot, especially on location and it certainly ramped up my nerves some. Plus it meant that not only did I need to be aware of all technical issues with my camera and lens choice, I had to keep my lighting in check, stay aware of my model for poses; I also had to be very aware of the store's customers and try to not get in their way or have them get in my way. Unfortunately, as I found out, something had to give and I didn't do such as good a job as I could on directing my model - or providing good feedback and encouragement. With so much going on, I got too engrossed in the other tasks and was not the most communicative. Luckily for me, Debra (my model) was very helpful in filling in the gaps. It didn't hurt that we have known each other for a few years, so we had some common ground to build on.

All things considered, the shoot turned out pretty good. I have done some basic editing and provided proofs for Debra to make her final selection from. Once this is completed, I'll provide her with the agreed on number of digital files and also have one printed out for framing - in line with my basic photo package deal.

Here is one of the photos I took on the day, processed in TopazLabs BW Effects, that was actually taken after the shoot was winding down. I like it because it is much more relaxed and natural. though one thing you might not realize is that it was a "reject" image due to my flash not firing; meaning the overhead fluorescent lighting threw the colors off. Converting to B/W enabled me to save the shot; plus I do like the look of a good B/W image.

I have to admit, I'm toying with the idea of making some B/W HDR images just to see how they turn out. Yeah, I know I'm being weird, but art is all about experimenting and I view photography as a form of art that lends itself to experimentation.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Trying out some new software - first impressions

I recently get a new piece of editing software and have been taking a brief look into it's features on some of my previous portrait photos.

The software in question is PortraitProStudio and it is certainly very powerful in its editing features. So much so, I've found that I am having to dial down the settings to a more subtle level, as it is very easy to push things a little too far and enter the realm of "over processed".

Once I have found a good level of editing I certainly feel this will speed up my portrait editing and allow me to quickly dial the level of editing up or down to suit the subject and look I am after.

In all I have to say this is a very interesting and powerful software package, one that is currently on sale (half price). Well worth checking out if you do a lot of portrait and beauty work.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Back to basics

After a recent knock to my self confidence I have decided I'm just going to take photographs and not attempt to control genre, type and style. In other words, I'll be going back to how my photography began and photographing whatever caught my eye.

If you are wondering what happened to knock my self confidence, I'll give a brief explanation. Up until recently I had been doing more portrait shoots so, to get a little more exposure and (maybe) lead to some paid work, I offered a couple of free portrait shoots on my Facebook page. Well, long story short, I was taken aback with the low, to non-existent response I received. I received a grand total of one inquiry and even that has not been fully arranged and shot (needing to make finalized details etc). While I know that social media (and Facebook) can be a mixed blessing, I was taken aback somewhat.

And this brings me to where I am today, trying to push this aside and to pick up my camera, to shoot anything of any style, any subject. Even if it's just photos of my dogs, it's building myself back up. I'm going to be shooting for me and if you happen to like my photographs, it'll make me smile some more than I already am.

Now it's time to blow some cobwebs off my camera, dust off the lenses and go shoot something; anything!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Off camera flash

I've been working with off camera flash for a little while now, first by use of a TTL cable and then with the aid of a Nikon SU-800 flash commander to give full TTL (through the lens) flash control - including the ability to run in high-speed sync up to my camera's max shutter speed of 1/8000th sec.

I've been pretty happy with how the SU-800 has performed and only recently started looking at ways to overcome it's main limitations; the need for line of sight operation and, being IR (infra red) in it's triggering, it not liking bright lighting conditions.

Now I know that PocketWizard are the most popular brand out there, and also pretty pricey, I decided (also my wallet helped the decision) to test the waters with something a little cheaper. I found a good price on a "1 light" set of Phottix Ares triggers and have to be honest that I have mixed feelings on the performance and reliability I encountered.

My initial testing revealed a fairly significant "failure rate" of approx 5% where I either had no flash triggering or what appeared to be a sync issue with a dark band over the image. This was using a Nikon D2x and a Nikon SB-900 at max sync speed of 1/250th sec. I even dropped the speed to 1/200th sec with no real difference in performance.

Is this kind of failure common to radio triggers or is something inherent to the Phottix - or to my aging Nikon D2x, or the SB-900?

I'm now contemplating my next move. Keep the Phottix triggers, and live with the photo failures; return it as faulty (will a replacement be any better); or save up and buy a set of PocketWizard triggers? Which, if all radio based triggers have a failure rate, will I be better off spending out for PocketWizard's?

Friday, January 2, 2015

New year, new opportunities

With the turn of another year I wanted to take the opportunity to wish everyone a happy and prosperous new year.

I will be undertaking more portrait work (free and paid) and generally making efforts to expand my posts on here in the year to come. In general though I just want to spend a lot more time behind my camera taking and making photographs.