Thursday, December 29, 2011

On the Fringe--A look at Panoramic Composition and Treating HDR Images for Edge Fringe

Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, Happy Hanukah, Happy New Year, Happy Day, Happy Life! It's been a while since my last blog post, and for that I say, "You're welcome." When I created this blog, I did so as a way to share photo-tips and interesting photo-venture stories. I wanted to avoid turning this into a daily journal on days when I'm not having fun with photos. Fortunately, my studies as a Master's Student in vocal performance at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas have allowed me to nurture my artistic needs while precluding me from going on as many photo-adventures.
                                      Eden Giving Rise, originally uploaded by navandale.
Via Flickr:
Sunrise on Thanksgiving Morning in the Garden of Eden in Arches Naitonal Park near Moab, Utah. This is a seldom photographed view of the popular South Window Arch and the eastern-most part of the rock formations that make up the Garden of Eden. I was quite thankful to get this glorious sunrise, as the last time I was here the sky was not nearly as interesting.

I've decided that I quite enjoy visiting National Parks on holidays, because not nearly as many people are present. Although, I did run into a few people after I packed up and headed toward my car. My family always has Thanksgiving dinner the day after Thanksgiving, letting me take advantage of uncrowded national parks and still share in feasting!

The reason this view is rarely photographed is because it covers a 180 degree field of view from southeast to northwest. This is a panoramic image created from 10 vertical HDR frames. Each HDR frame was created from 3 RAW images using Photomatix Pro and Photoshop CS4.

How I did it: 

First of all, I had my typical gear: Canon 40D, Tamron 18-250, Manfrotto carbon fiber/magnesium alloy tripod. I was shooting at a bracket of (0, -2, +2), f18, ISO200. I balanced my exposure to the clouds in the sky, rather than the foreground, giving me a midtone exposure of 1/6 second, so my bracketed exposures were (1/6, 1/25, 0.6).  

WHEN SHOOTING FOR A PANORAMA, keep in mind the basic rules of composition: 
1) Have something interesting in the foreground. Here it's the doughboy-shaped rock formation and the arch; 
2) Capture more sky if the sky is interesting, and more ground if the ground is interesting (in this case, both were interesting); 
3) Align the horizon and avoid unwanted objects (litter, fences, cars, people, etc.); 
4) Generally use a wide enough aperture for wide angle nature shots (f18-22), and a narrow enough aperture for better depth-of-field with zoomed focal lengths (f2-5.6).
5) Compose enough of the scene to allow for cropping after the panorama is created (The photomerge process will usually distort the image a little, making cropping necessary);
5a) Avoid unnecessary negative space (cloudless sky, desolate/monotonous/boring landscape)
6) Overlap wide-angle frames by at least 1/2 to compensate for lens distortion, and zoomed frames by at least 1/3
7) Compensate for changing exposure values over a large scene by finding the midtones of the entire scene (when bracketing for HDR images, also make sure that your images sufficiently expose the highlights of clouds and foliage... sometimes that means taking 6 exposures to capture all of the highlight detail).
8) ALWAYS USE YOUR TRIPOD... and a decent one. I've seen enough people try to set up their SLRs on those 12" snaking tripods... you've seen em in camera stores and airports.  They're a waste of money. Go ahead and spend the extra $20-30 on a sturdy tripod that stands at least a few feet tall... and use it! Sturdiness is key when capturing beautiful landscape images.

Generally, a good HDR landscape histogram will look like this
I USUALLY EXPOSE for the sky when shooting sunrises or sunsets, because part of the beauty of those times of day comes from the awesome clouds. Which is to say that I measure the clouds as the midtone of the scene, and set my shutter speed accordingly. This is the histogram for the completed image above. Notice how, because the sun is not actually up yet, there are no blown out highlights... otherwise it would be ok to have a little blown out bar on the far right of the histogram. Thus, the sky has exquisite detail when zoomed in to 100%.  

BUT WAIT, now that we're zoomed in to 100%, we might be able to see all sorts of anomalies and eyesores: Noise in the sky, fringed edges, and weird color variances from frame to frame. 

It used to frustrate me when I would complete an hdr image, only to discover that there was weird green and red fringing around the highlight edges. I would take the HDR into Adobe RAW, knowing that there is a defringe option under the lens calibration menu. unfortunately, this option would not help, and I'd be left to either accept the fringed edges, scrap the photo, or try to somehow manually fix the edges.
I have tried all options, and none of them seemed very just.  There must be a way.

Luckily, the answer came to me when I noticed that the white balance was different from bracketed image to image in one of my bracketed sets. So, I opened the RAW images in Adobe RAW to adjust the white balance. In this sunrise image taken in Yosemite National Park, the sky was much warmer, but the camera read the white balance as cooler. The quick fix was to set the white balance for all 3 images to "Shade" and then make minor adjustments to the Temperature and Tint sliders.

Then, I zoomed in to 100%, and this is what I saw:

Those terribly fringes edges weren't a byproduct of the HDR process after all!  I could fix them in camera RAW before merging them into an HDR image. So, Under the Lens Corrections Menu I selected "Defringe>All edges."

That fixed a lot of the problem, but I still noticed some weird color fringing on the edges, so I took the matter into my own hands. The colored fringe is a byproduct of light wrapping around an edge. If the edge is facing the light source, it will be more red, if it is facing away from the light source, it will be more cyan. So, I moved the Red/Cyan fringe slider to -33, and fixed the fringe problem on all RAW images. I then saved the images as TIFF files, and merged those files using Photomatix Pro.

The image below show the adjustments I made in Photomatix Pro. Pay close attention to the histogram... notice how I don't sacrifice any shadow detail or highlight detail. I do this by adjusting the Strength, Luminosity, and White Point/Black Point sliders. Each image is different, so I rarely use the same settings. Though, generally, I won't take the strength over 90 or below 70, won't move the saturation from the 48-50 area, and won't lower the luminosity by too much. The Microcontrast and Smoothing are usually set to 10. Gamma is always at 1.00 (usually). The preview is usually different from the processed HDR, due to the computer's ability to render a 32 bit image. That's why it's important to pay close attention to the histogram.

I save the HDR as a 32 bit TIFF. If it's a frame for a larger pano, I process all of the frames under the same settings  (sometimes I will process parts of the scene with different settings to get to a truer-to-life representation of colors and levels... but that takes a lot of time and patience). After the photomerge I edit the HDR image in RAW, and in photoshop (typical edits almost always include in this order: cropping, spot-removal, levels balancing/contrast adjustment, sharpening, noise-removal).

Once I get the image to where I like it, I save it as a 16 bit TIFF. Then I add my signature via a brush that I created from a photo of my signature (don't know how? It's easy... google it), and save that as a separate TIFF file, then as a jpeg. Then I put my border around the image and save it as a separate file.  The reason for so many files: website display, printing, re-touching, and archiving.

Morning Song
Happy Holidays!  Thanks for reading!

For prints, visit my printshop.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Im Freien (and how to add a starry sky to your golden-hour photos)

"Heaven's Perch" Starry-Sky Sunrise View From Zion Overlook.
If you speak German, you probably pronounced the title of this post properly, if not, you probably pronounced it along the lines of "I'm Freein." Im Freien [ihm (like him) fry-en] means in the open, or in the free.  That's the title of a piece of German Lieder (art song) by Franz Schubert that I recently performed for a vocal master-class at UNLV.  The translation of the text reads (summarized): "Outdoors in the expansive night, I stand ever at peace.  The bright stars let my heart not rest... A thousand arms reach to me, beckoning me sweetly there... A thousand voices call me with a tender, loving sound.  Oh, I know what my calling is. I know what my passion is.  Like the sound of a dear friend's greeting, it calls me entrancingly through the air..."

I still remember the first time I ever saw a truly starry night sky.  I was a young kid, probably about 8, and we were in Colorado visiting my grandparents.  Before that I had always lived in areas where the light pollution prevented the true splendor of the night sky from being seen.  I think it's a shame that some people have spent, and will spend, their entire lives in areas where they will never be able to see the milky way, or shooting stars.  Now that I live in Las Vegas, I often feel stifled by the weight of the city, to the point where I have to get out every few weeks.

"Take My Hand, I'll Take your Hand" Middle Emerald Pool 
This past weekend I went to Zion National Park, which is just a couple of hours away from Vegas.  I was hoping the fall colors would be at their peak, and though there was some color in various parts of the canyon, it looked like the peak of the season was still a couple of weeks away.  I was also hoping for some clouds in the sky, rather than a boring blue sky... but apparently even the "cloud-whisperer" doesn't always get pretty clouds.  None of that withstanding, I made the best of my time.  I hiked about 22 miles over the weekend, through the grottos and Emerald Pools, up and down Angels Landing, and in and out of the Subway.  Preferring to make lemonade rather than frown at the lemons I was handed, I decided to experiment a bit.  Knowing that I wasn't going to have any clouds for a pretty sunrise sky, I decided to show up at the Zion Overlook an hour beforehand to photograph the starry sky.  Then, keeping the same composition, I photographed the sunrise, and later combined the images to make a beautiful sunrise photo with an interesting sky (top image).

Later that day I hiked up to Angels Landing.  This was my first hike up Angels Landing, a hike that warns not to bring children, or people afraid of heights.  Personally, I think the warnings are a bit exaggerated, as it's a paved hike all the way up until the last quarter mile or so, and even then there are chain hand holds and steps cut into the rock.  Nevertheless, I did encounter people who were just too scared to make it, and had to turn around and head back down.  At least it was a good cardio-workout, well-worth it for the view.  Towards sunset the sky teased me with some wispy stratus clouds, but they pretty much dissipated by the time the sun set.  So, I figured I would photograph the sunset, then capture the sky an hour afterwards... I was prepared with my headlamp and extra batteries.  It was totally worth the hour-long wait after sunset.  As I was taking my second long-exposure of the stars, a meteorite buzzed overhead, so close I could almost hear it sizzle.  Since I was shooting with my 15mm fisheye lens, the meteorite looks much smaller in the photo than it did when I was there... but you can get a sense of how incredible it was.  Here is that image.
"Angels Passing Time" Starry-Sky Sunset View From Angels Landing
After I sang "Im Freien," the guest artist who was running the master class commented, "Interesting poetry.  Seems like kind of a weird person, huh?  Maybe someone who isn't quite normal?  Like maybe someone who had a little too much Absenthe?" "Perhaps." I replied. "And what do we normally call those people?" I thought to reply, "enlightened... transcendent" but before I could he answered himself, "Hippies." I chuckled a bit and furthered, "Or outdoor photographers."

How I did it...

It's actually quite easy to add a starry sky to your sunset or sunrise image.  First of all, I did my typical image capture process for the landscape scene.  In other words, they are all High Dynamic Range images created from 3-RAW files (-2, 0, +2), processed in Photomatix Pro and Photoshop CS4.  To see videos of my process, check out my earlier blog posts.  For sunrise, be at your location an hour ahead of time, figure out the composition you will want, and aim your camera slightly higher than 2/3 of the top of that composition.  With my Canon 40D I shoot a 30 second exposure of the sky at f2.8 ISO800, manually focused at just before infinity (not all the way to the end of the focus... the sky will be sharper).  If I had a camera that handled noise better, I would crank up the ISO and increase the shutter speed to avoid the tiny star trails caused by the rotation of the earth.  But I don't, and it doesn't make a huge difference, so I won't stress about it.  Then, back down to ISO 100, f20, and whatever the exposure needs to be for that morning's sunrise.  Capture your bracketed images.  Same idea for sunset, only leave your camera in place after you capture the landscape, find some way to kill an hour, and come back and photograph the sky slightly higher than 2/3s of your original composition. 

Then, when you get home, process your HDR images so they look good with the boring blue gradient sky.  Once they're processed and polished, create a new layer with the image of the starry sky.  You will need to increase the top of your canvas size (CTRL[Command]+ALT+C) by a few inches... you can crop down later. Line up the bottom of your starry sky image with the top of the landscape portion of your lower image (horizon to horizon).  They may not line up exactly due to lens distortion, which is ok. Change the blend mode of the starry sky to either lighten or screen, whichever one looks better to you.  Instant magic, now you have a starry sky along with your landscape.  You're not done yet.  You may notice a vague outline of the lower horizon from your starry sky image... go ahead and mask that out.  If you have a line from the top edge of your landscape image, apply a layer mask to it as well, and very lightly feather the edge away until it looks smooth.  If you did your job right, you should have a seamless landscape image with a nicely graduated starry sky.

Thanks for reading!  Be well! :-)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Creation Creating Creations

Ahh the art of creation.  When you think about it, everything in the universe is constantly creating... one could say that it's our divine purpose to create... that it's unavoidable.  As humans, we're blessed with the gift of conscious awareness that allows us to create at will.  I could go on and on about the philosophical nature of creation, but today I'm just going to focus on the creation of works intended to be artistic.  I phrase it like that "works intended to be artistic" because not everyone agrees on what can be called art.  Well, I'm suspending judgment, although I have my opinions on what is "good" or "bad" art, because for someone to take the time to create something means that they're sharing a part of themselves.  Intentional creations of things that don't necessarily need to be created--works of aesthetic or audible value designed to make a statement or elicit a feeling beyond mere function--are perhaps the strongest form of human emotion.

I sang the National Anthem this morning for the State of the University Address at UNLV, where I'm studying for my Master's of Music.  I didn't add any melisma or fluff, and I sang all the correct words the way that Francis Scott Key penned them.  It seems like often times, not to knock any large-event divas, the meaning behind the song is lost.  Raised in a military family, I can't help but imagine what it must have felt like to Mr. Key to be a prisoner, to have bullets and bombs percussing the air around his head, to fight for the freedom of his home, and to see the star-spangled flag being illuminated by fire in the sky.  He wrote those words to share his emotions, to convey what was going on to future readers.  He had no idea that his words would be turned into a song sung before sporting and other events.  But his emotions live on.  As a singer, it is my job to interpret and convey the emotions that both the lyricist and songwriter intended, regardless of the language or year of the song.

When I left the State of the University Address, I walked across campus and saw a friend of mine sitting under a tree.  When I approached her to say hello and pay her a compliment, I saw that her emotional state was less than happy.  She, too, is a musician.. a pianist and singer.  When I offered a friendly ear, through tears she explained that she was scorned by her piano teacher for missing a note in a piece she had been practicing for a couple of weeks.  She was questioning whether she wanted to continue with piano, or just focus on singing.  She felt like she is not really doing what she wants with her life.  After a few minutes of listening to her, I let her know that I knew exactly how she felt.  After I had what could be called bad luck with opera auditions in Europe (that's another story, but suffice it to say my music-tied emotions were shattered for a while), I left classical singing all together and ended up traveling the world.  Of course, I still felt a deep emotional connection to the world around me, and a need to create a shareable form of that connection, and thus began my photographic endeavors.

It is very difficult to be a good musician and not be in touch with your emotions.  Most of your free time is spent practicing, questioning yourself, doubting yourself, practicing more, getting nervous, and then finally performing.  Hopefully the performance goes well, which usually happens after enough practice, but even then you focus on the little mistakes you made.  Then, people from the audience tell you how great you are... very rarely does anyone say, "Thank you", or, "I really enjoyed that", or any other personal statement.  Personally, I don't like meet and greets after a performance for that very reason.  My performance is not about me, it is for you.  Sure, I place an emotional value on the music I'm performing,  but I perform for myself.  It is always up to me whether or not I want to share it with an audience (though normally I do, because I think the world benefits when people share what's in their souls).

Which brings me back to creation.  We all place emotional value on things, but often times we're a bit too lazy to do anything about that.  Now, granted, not everyone feels the need to create... not everyone has a "feeling" personality type.  But if you're reading this blog, you're likely someone who is at least intrigued by artistic creation.

"Wait a minute Nathan, I thought this was a photography blog!  What gives with all the music talk?"  Well, when people ask what I do, I tell them I'm an artist... then they ask what kind, and I modestly reply, "In every way that I can be."  I think in song, although I haven't quite honed my song-writing skills to the point where I want them.  Since I think in song, I try to convey a sense of musical motion in my images.  In this image I took at Cedar Springs, a farm I worked at in Sedro Wooley, WA, I can hear the raspberries and sunflower harmonize with the sunset in a soothing lullaby.

I think there are a lot of people out there like me, who think in song, and who feel connected to the world and sky.  But I also think that a lot of those people have been conditioned to live their lives based on the expectations of others, thus not allowing their souls to fully be expressed.

I was recently interviewed by Fine Art Photography Weekly, which was a huge honor.  The topic of conversation was "Do what you Love".  I think that is the underlying message of this post: Create what you Love to Create.  Here's the interview.  Thanks for reading, and enjoy the show!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Procrastination and Publicity

Gosh, it's been a great summer!  So what have I been up to since May?  Well, although this is technically a "photo blog" I'm more than just a photographer.  I'm also a musician, and a procrastinating ranch-hand.  I spent my summer in beautiful Florissant, CO, helping my parents rid their ranch of Dwarf Mistletoe, and performing at the Midland Depot Restaurant at the Imperial Hotel in Cripple Creek.  I didn't do a whole lot of photography (outside of a bit of portraiture) during that time, as I was waiting for the wildflowers to bloom.

Like many of you, I'm frugal.  Unlike many of you, I'm frugal because I'm financially broke, as every penny I make goes towards student loans.  DON'T EVER GET STUDENT LOANS!!!  So, I didn't want to spend the gas and food it would take to go around and scout.  So, I spent many of my days practicing music, lumber-jacking, and working out using the P90X program.  I wrote in an earlier post about how I came across a guy buried in the snow while skiing at Sierra at Tahoe, which inspired me to get into better shape.  Well, I can gladly say that after 90 days of P90X I went from a skinny 6'3", undefined 170lbs to a ripped 185lbs of pure lean muscle, and my body fat went from 15% to 7%.

But back to Photography.  The Wildflowers finally bloomed in mid-July, and peaked towards the end of the month.  Using Andy Cook's book as a guide (A Guide to Colorado's Best Photography Locations), I decided to explore the San Juan Mountains.  I couldn't have been happier!  My goal was to get a sunrise or sunset image of Columbines in a field of flowers with a mountain backdrop.  I got more that I could have imagined.  This was the first image I posted to Flickr, which immediately got posted on Flickr's Explore.

Make sure to check out my printshop to download free desktop and smartphone wallpapers of some of my Colorado Wildflower images.  Or, you could even buy some prints for your home or office, please :-)

Here's a tip for photographing flowers... always bring either an umbrella, or reflector, or something to block the wind.  When photographing flowers, you will notice more then ever how much they move (Especially when photographing with auto-bracketed exposures).  Or, you could just count on your luck and patience... but best to be prepared, as both luck and patience tend to run out when dealing with nature.  

As I said earlier, I'm also a musician.  And although I was singing standards and strumming my guitar at the Midland Depot, I am classically trained, and sing Opera.  That being said, I have recently relocated to Las Vegas, where I'll be studying Vocal Performance at UNLV as a Master's Student.  That doesn't leave me a whole lot of time to get out and photograph nature as much, but I now live very close to Zion National Park, where I am considering hosting photo-walks in the future.

Here are some cool happenings too.  Since I returned to Vegas, I was contacted by Coffee Break Studios, informing me that my images have inspired them to create a new screen-saver App for Macs that will track your face movements, allowing you to look around the image as though you are actually there.

Also, if you live in Colorado, Colorado State University Extension has just created a promotional bookmark with one of my Columbine images for their website Planttalk Colorado, which focuses on horticultural advice for the state.

And finally, I am being interviewed by Fine Art Photography Weekly on Sept. 13 at 1:30pm PST.  Make sure you tune in to to catch that interview.  Or, just come on back to my blog afterwards where I'll have a link to the interview.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Whiskey Skies

Whiskey Skies, originally uploaded by navandale.

Spectacular sunset over the Oak Bottom arm of Whiskeytown Lake. This was my stop after leaving Redwood National Forest on my National Park trek. I wasn't actually expecting anything special to come from Whiskeytown National Park (in comparison to many of the other National Parks I have seen and would see). That thought was stoked by the fact that the waterfall that I had wanted to visit and photograph had all sorts of trail-construction. 

On my approach to Whiskeytown through Willow Creek, I could tell that the sunset was going to be beautiful... But, I was surrounded by canyon walls, and really wanted a shot with Shasta Bally in the background. Well, as I exited the canyon and rounded a bend I saw this scene... I had to stop! Fortunately, there was a campground parking lot about 50 meters ahead. I pulled in, parked, and rushed to get my camera and tripod.

In my flip-flops I navigated the steep, thistle-covered bank to the shore-line. The shoreline didn't offer much in the way of foreground... all there was was a lonely rock far off to the side, which only offered one angle of view (lest I include the man-made embankment that made up the northwest shore).  I considered photographing the scene with just lake and sky, more of an exact mirror, but it just wasn't as interesting without something in the foreground.  So, I got my tripod folded wide open to allow for a nice low angle on the rock, and still see enough sky.  The only available angle from which to shoot the foreground, not get the man-made embankment, but still see the clouds and mountains required that I put the legs of my tripod in the water, and I squat in a smelly mud.  I took a series of shots as the light quickly changed, but this image was the first I captured, and the best of the evening.

The only way to capture the completeness of the scene was to shoot it as a panoramic. This is an HDR pano made from 4 horizontal frames. Each frame is an HDR image created from 3 RAW images using Photomatix Pro. Pano stitched in Photoshop.  Very little post processing was done to this image.  A little dust-spot stamping, unsharp mask, and noiseware standard in the sky. 

Enjoy, and thanks for visiting! :-)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Drinks, Snacks, and Violence... all in a Beautiful Day's Work

My recent trip to Yosemite Valley yielded some awesome photographic opportunities, as well as some unforgettable encounters.  Here's a couple images and anecdotes from that trip.

View of Tissayak (Half Dome) and North Dome from the Ahwahnee Meadows in Yosemite Valley.  The Paiute legend that I like (there are a few versions, and even some controversy over wheather it is a Paiute or a Miwok legend) states that a young girl and her husband were out from Mono Lake and were very thirsty when they entered Yosemite Valley.  The young girl was so thirsty that she drank up all the water in the valley, angering her husband to the point of beating her.  As she tried to run away she threw her basket at him, but then fell down and began to cry.  To punish them for bringing anger into a place of peace and beauty, the creator turned them into stone, the woman forever weeping: Tissayak.  Her Husband: North Dome.  Her Basket: Basket Dome. Her tears still streak the face of Half Dome.

Sometimes the scene is just too big for the lenses I have, so... I cheat.  This is an HDR-pano from 4 HDR images, arranged in quadrants.  Processed using Photomatix Pro's Batch Processing, and Photoshop CS4.  It's pretty easy to stitch pretty much any number of images together using photoshop's "Photomerge" option.  It only requires a little bit of foresight when capturing the images.  Make sure there's about 30% overlap per frame, and with just about any focal-length you can make grand panoramic stitches (as long as the "correct geometric distortion" box is checked).  Just make sure to shoot more than just the intended scene, as you will need to crop the slightly warped edges of the final product.  

Lunch Munchin

On my hike up to Nevada Falls, I stopped to admire the beautiful rainbow created by the angle of the sun against the spray.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one enjoying the scene.  This little ground squirrel stayed still for the entire time it took me to consider the shot, wonder if the squirrel would stay put, and set up my tripod... about a minute and a half in all.  Then, as soon as I took my bracketed shots, the squirrel looked up at me and scurried off.  

It's both cute and annoying how accustomed to humans some "wild" animals are.  Every National Park has signs posted on trails admonishing against feeding the wildlife.  Not only can the non-indigenous food cause myriad health problems for the animals, but the animals can most certainly cause health problems for humans.  These cute critters carry lice, ticks, fleas, other parasites, rabbies, and other diseases.  This squirrel was eating what looked like a torn of bit of a granola bar... probably no big deal... but before you know it, this squirrel will be dependent on handouts and be unable to fend for itself (...hmmm, is there a hidden socio-political statement in there).  

Thanks for reading.  Be well! :-)

Saturday, April 30, 2011

In The Hands of God

In The Hands of God, originally uploaded by navandale.
During this spectacular sunset from Hopi point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a child nearby exclaimed, "Look, God's talking!" I couldn't help but to smile and agree.

The Grand Canyon was the final destination on a journey that I will always remember as being the most magical and meaningful of sojourns.  Starting in South Lake Tahoe, where I'd lived over the winter as an on-mountain photographer at Sierra at Tahoe, I traveled first to the Redwood National Park in Northern California, Through Lassen and Whiskeytown National Parks, to Yosemite for a few days, and then on to Death Valley for a night of salt-flat photography.  After a quick visit with friends in Vegas, I went on to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation.  Then Finally, I arrived at the Grand Canyon, and to one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen.  Aside from the intrinsic awesomeness of all of those places, each and every day became more perfect as far as the experiences that I needed.

I am an independently spiritual person, and I value the teachings of almost all of the religions and philosophies that I have studied.  I make this distinction because the use of the word God means many things to many different people.  What I feel, believe, and perceive is a  universally connected guiding and organizing force that is never separate from anything, and is always resonating in ways that we can consciously interact with.  For many people, including myself, distractions, or "noise" ends up becoming the focal point of our daily lives.  Money, relationships, TV, Phones, Internet, Work, Bosses, Kids, Pets, etc., etc., etc.... all gets so loud and distracting that we lose ourselves in it.  We interact with people who are distracted by all of their noise, and we all feel trapped for some reason, but hardly realize it because we're so distracted.  I love OUR National Parks and State Parks because we have consciously set aside places free of the noise and distractions; places where we can go to more easily tune in to that ever-present resonance.

I can't count the number of times, while walking through a national park, I have to stop look up at the sky with a sigh of wonder.  Sometimes our lives can feel really heavy, problems almost too big to handle.  It's during those times the healing power of meekness amidst the vastness of nature makes whatever problems seem not so big.  Yes, Look!  God's talking!

How I got this shot:
This was a Very windy sunset.  We arrived about 45 minutes before this point in time, and already the sky was gorgeous, shooting sunbeams through the clouds, lighting up sections of the canyon wall.  It was so windy, though, that I wanted a foreground object that would be stationary... a cool rock or a dead juniper tree, or something.  I was really excited, my last trip to the Grand Canyon didn't yield a very impressive sky, and honestly, I hadn't quite honed my photabilities yet.  Every day of my trip had been more wondrous than the previous, and I was already feeling the magic.  I walked along the rim until, voila, before my eyes was an outstretched dead juniper tree with thick enough branches that it didn't move in the strong wind.  Not only that, but it perfectly framed the two visible sections of the Colorado River, and seemed to point to the sun like outstretched fingers.

So, I set up my Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 tripod close to the ground with the legs extended at 45º angles for a sturdier base.  That's one of the cool features of my tripod.  Unlike my old aluminum tripod which connected all of the legs via cross beams, severely limiting compositional options, my new tripod has independent legs that can each fold further than 90º, and the Q90 center column folds horizontally, allowing for super close-to-the-ground shots.  You can check it out here.

I decided to use my shutter-release cable for this one, rather than my 2-second delay method.  The light levels stayed pretty much the same until the sun went behind the San Francisco Mountains, so I didn't need to fiddle with my settings much during this time.  Camera set to AEB(-2,0,+2) at ISO 100 f20, I back focused on the base of the tree, then turned my AF off, so as to not accidentally focus on something else after composing the frame. Once I had the image composed, all I had to do was fire whenever I thought the sky/canyon/tree relationship looked cool.  I must have taken 30 groups of shots (that's 90 exposures) by the time the sun dipped below that last thin cloud, still partially covered, but illuminating the entire rim with a warm orange light.  The tree and bush both glowed in reply to the burning clouds in the sky.  Sections of the canyon in the distance were being bathed in sheets of light, which I knew would be complimented by the refraction patterns of shooting at a narrow aperture.  The relationship of the clouds with the tree and the canyon were all in perfect harmony.  When I saw the three images on the back of my camera, I was ecstatic!  I couldn't wait to process this image and share it with the world.

I processed this image with the new version of Photomatix Pro (4.0.2).  But the new version doesn't change how I process my images, it just makes taking care of ghosting slightly easier.  To see my free video tutorials on how to process HDR images using Photomatix Pro and Photoshop CS4, start here and work your way forward.  :-)

Prints available at my printshop.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Morning Song

Morning Song, originally uploaded by navandale.
Via Flickr:
Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan from the Merced River in Yosemite National Park during sunrise on an especially magical day. It was a cold night, allowing fog to cling to the more open areas of the Yosemite Valley. I camped at Camp 4, the more primitive of Yosemite's camps, which is about 4 miles away from Bridalveil Falls (also the closest to the falls). I had this shot in mind since before I arrived in Yosemite, so when I woke up at 5:30 with the birds, I knew I was running late. No time to make a breakfast fire and brew coffee. Dawn was upon me.

So, I hopped on my bike, and enjoyed a beautiful ride to this spot. I stopped along the way a few times contemplating striking compositions, but I didn't dally for fear that the fog would lift, and I'd miss the color in the clouds. Well, I arrived at this bend in the river, and carefully moved from rock to rock, careful not to disturb the fragile flora along the bank, until I had the composition I wanted. Honestly, I was hoping for something more interesting in the foreground... but I'm not complaining.

Yosemite Valley is a magical place, and this morning was no exception.  With the songs from all of the birds providing a melody on top of the melisma of the moving water, and the occasional crescendo and decrescendo of wind, I had no need for any ipod or other musical device during my stay. This image is but one of many taken during my stay in Yosemite, and can be purchased as a fine art print, puzzle, mouse-pad, coaster, coffee-mug, etc. at my printshop.

Now, Let's talk about Stability and Camera Shake.
To take this image, I used my brand new Manfrotto 055XPROB Pro Tripod with the Manfrotto 322RC2 Joystick Ball Head.  Sure, I could have used any tripod, but I am super excited about this thing. It is a carbon fiber magnesium allow, so it's super strong, and super light-weight.  Not to mention, I have full-360 degree rotatability, greatly expanding my shooting options compared to my old, heavy, unsturdy aluminum tripod.  Then, with my Canon 40D set to AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing)+-2, and self-timer set to a 2-second delay, I metered the midtones of the scene at f18 1/15 ISO 100 and fired away.  Why not use my shutter-release cable, you ask?  For shots like this, where I don't need to immediately capture what I see or expose for longer than 30 seconds, I like to use the camera's self-timer.  First of all, I find it to be a hassle to take out my SRC, hook it up to the camera, and then a couple minutes later have to take it back off to put my camera back in it's bag.  Second, even with a SRC and an awesomely stable tripod, it's very easy to get camera shake by firing too soon after composing the image.  I find that 2 seconds is generally a pretty good buffer to make sure the camera's stable.  If using a non image-stabilized zoom lens, you may even want to consider the 10 second delay for certain shots (or just take a few breaths before pushing the shutter release button).  Whatever you do, by all means, DON'T PUT YOUR CAMERA ON A TRIPOD ONLY TO PRESS THE SHUTTER FOR AN IMMEDIATE CAPTURE, YOU WILL NOT GET AS SHARP OF AN IMAGE, AND YOU WILL BE WASTING YOUR TRIPOD!  Always allow some time after composing your image for the camera to settle, even when shooting panos!  Well, that's my two cents anyway.  I hope you found it informative, or at least interesting enough to read all the way through! ;-)

Thanks for reading!  Be Well!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How to Create an HDR Pano using Photomatix Pro's Batch Processing, and Photoshop's Photomerge

"A Good Place to Sit"
Ahh, Lake Tahoe.  A slice of Heaven on Earth.  I took this image in Zephyr Cove, which is on the Nevada shore, at sunset during a break in our most recent set of storms.  This may look like a photo taken with a full-frame sensor DSLR, but it is not.  It is actually a panoramic stitch from 5 vertical frames.  If you want to see how I process my HDR panos, check out the free video tutorial I made down below.

I usually try not to have any human-made objects in my nature photos, but the bench here really worked with the scene.  Also, I thought the tiny snowman towards center-left was pretty cute.  Lake Tahoe is probably one of the more heavily touristed naturally beautiful areas I've ever been.  Much of the shoreline is privately owned, and that which is not is usually a bit more trafficked by people.  So, wanting to remain true to my location, I decided to make lemonade and incorporate the human-made features.  (between you and me, I suspect that much of the beach and sandbar at Zephyr cove was constructed anyway).  Also, if you look closely you can find the edges of a rainbow equidistant from the sun just above the horizon line.

Have a great day!

How to Create an HDR Pano using Photomatix Pro's Batch Processing and Photoshop's Photomerge. from Nathan Van Arsdale on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thy Rod & Thy Staff

Shepherd, originally uploaded by navandale.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Psalm 23

This image is an "abstract" photo I took of some icicles.  I love discovering transcendental features of the everyday or mundane.  I chose this image for this blog post because I took it when I got home from the story below.  Something as simple and abundant as water can become ignored as white noise, as is the case with many things in life... but as is the case with most everything, when examined under the meditative, inquisitive, photographic lens, new layers and emotions emerge.  Photo specs, f5.6 1/200 ISO 250.  Contrast adjustments in Camera RAW.

I'm not dogmatic in my spiritual beliefs, and I don't often write about them online because of the myriad understandings of the same words, and people's sensitivity towards their attachment to those understandings.  But I think I have to share what happened the other day:

I quite enjoy when I can witness the Universe working through/with people.  In my own practice, I have felt/perceived extreme connection and universal oneness, but
usually through meditation.  But on this day, I wasn't trying... I was just enjoying myself, skiing as I have done nearly every day this year at Sierra at Tahoe.  On this day, I was placed in the exact right place, and at the exact right time.  Though anyone in my place would have done the exact same thing, I am humbled to have been put in the situation to save a man's life.

It was a very snowy powder day, and I was deep in trees on a run that I never ski--I had been making laps on one of my favorite routes, but when I got off the lift this time, I found myself for some reason turning down the main run.  I turned off of the main run into the woods, only occasionally coming upon other tracks.  It was great powder skiing, but I felt the urge to stop, so I did.  Ten feet away in a tree-well I saw a sliver of black sticking out of the snow, just about 3 inches of the edge of a ski.  I figured I would retrieve the ski and bring it to Lost and Found.  Then I noticed the tip of a ski pole mixed in with the hanging, snow-covered branches of the tree.  At this point I stopped thinking.

"HEY, ARE YOU OK!!!" I shouted at the realization that someone was likely buried in that tree well.  Three more times I shouted, "HEY, ARE YOU OK?!?!?"  Then I saw the ski move a little with a kick, confirming that someone was indeed buried, and that they were at least conscious.  I started to move closer.

I should point out that this year the Sierra's have received more snow than they have in at least 15 years (according to local friends).  Maneuvering on mountainous terrain in chest-deep snow is NOT easy, even with awesome powder skis like what I have (K2 Kung Fujas).   And, in order to dig this guy out, I would have to unclip from my skis.  His ski was locked by the tree's trunk and branches on the uphill side, and his head was on the downhill side under an unknown amount of snow.

As I moved closer, I continued shouting, and to my surprise and delight he replied, "I'm OK!"  
"Keep breathing." I said, "Are you injured?"
"I think I'm ok, he said, but I'm stuck and can't breath.  I can't move my legs."  He kicked his leg a little, showing how pinned he was.
"Don't try to move." I shouted. "I'm going to get you out of there... but first I need to dig down to you."
I stomped out a platform to take off my skis close to the tree well.  Once I unclipped, I sank down to about my waist, and used my poles and skis to keep myself supported.  
"What's your name?" I asked.  
no reply
"HEY, I'm going to unclip your skis,  OK?"  I shouted.
"OK" he softly replied.  

I had no idea how long he'd been buried.  But I knew that every second of a claustrophobic situation like that feels like an eternity.  I unclipped his ski, and continued talking to him... if anything just to let him know I was there.  His other ski was still on his other foot, buried about 2 feet below his showing ski.  I reached through the snow, and once I found his release lever, I unclipped his other boot.  The sense of relief was palpable, but he was still really stuck.  He was still buried in a cage of frozen branches with his head downhill.  

I told him I was going to have to dig around the tree to where his head was.  So, with snow up to my chest I forced my way around the tree, half-digging, half-bull-dozing.  I kept talking to him, letting him know I was getting closer.  I made it around the tree to where I heard his voice, and started digging.  About 3 feet down, and I still don't see his head.  I found his arm, and grabbed his hand.  It was more for reassurance than for anything, but he pulled at it as though he was grasping at straws.   He was really stuck!  

A snowboarder appeared about 20 feet away and shouted asking if everything was ok.  I told him to go tell Ski Patrol, that there were no apparent injuries, but to come quickly.  I gave him landmark details that would let Ski Patrol find us easily.  After a minute of hesitation, I told him the quicker the better, and he left.  

I continued digging.

Then... Finally.  I felt his goggles, and then quickly went to clear the snow over his face.  He was face up!  I'm so happy he didn't drown!  His goggles were loaded with snow.  "Try to take slow breaths and don't move," I cautioned, "because were not done yet."  I had basically borrowed a hole to his head, leaving walls of delicate snow all around.  Any movement would surely send snow avalanching back onto his face.  "My name's Nathan, what's yours?"
"Jim" he replied gratefully, "and thank you Nathan."
"Jim, I've still got a bit of digging I have to do... some snow might fall back in your face.  Don't panic if that happens.  I know it's been a dark and hard to breath.  Just stay calm, and I'll get you out of here in a sec."

A little snow did indeed fall and re-cover his face... but it was easily brushed away.  The snow around his helmet was nearly cemented, which made it impossible for him to move his head, and difficult for me to dig him out.  I also wanted to be careful not to aggravate any potentially damaged bones.  After another few seconds, though, I had enough of his upper body dug out that he could move and wriggle to a manageable position.  

Taking the snow-filled goggles off his face he sighed, "OOh that's a scary movie." and then paused for a moment of reflection.  We tried in vain to find his other pole, all the while chatting.  He thanked me numerous times by the time I gave up searching for his pole, telling him, "Well Jim, I think we should chalk this pole up as a sacrifice to the snow Gods."  

This whole ordeal took about 20 minutes from the time I first noticed his ski.  I asked him how long he'd been down there before I arrived, although I know it probably felt like forever.  He estimated about 2 minutes.  With the rate of snowfall we had, another two minutes and his ski may have been completely covered.  Aside from the snowboarder who stopped when he saw me digging, only 2 other people skied by within 30 feet.  

I am sharing this story, because I am so grateful for the way angels, the universe, God, the Source, biochemical-electromagnetic-gravitational forces, etc. steer us from time to time.  I don't think that what I did was heroic, or deserving of any accolades, but simply the necessary thing to do in the given circumstance.  I am sharing this story because I hope it inspires you in some way.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

High Flying Sierra's

SierraAtTahoeSkiPhotography028, originally uploaded by navandale.
This is one of my favorite photos from this season at Sierra at Tahoe, where I'm a contract photographer through Flowskipix.

Aside from being able to ski every day, I love being able to capture people doing awesome things like it's nothing. In order for me to make a living (*ahem), it's in my best interest to capture their awesomeness in a unique, eye-catching, clear, focused, and flattering way. I've created a flickr set that features a few of my other favorite images from this year, where I've employed techniques such as longer shutter speeds, sequence shots, and high-speed panning to get my money-making shots.

To get this image, I first set up my position on the corner of the knuckle (the rounded transition to the landing) so that I was not a hazard to anyone wanting to take the jump, but so that I could photograph people both coming towards me, and flying past me. It was a bright sunny day, and the sun was behind me to camera right. I could have easily set my camera to an open aperture (btw, I was using a Tamron 18-250 3.5-6.3 Macro Zoom) and been able to freeze the action with a fast shutter-speed. But anyone can do that... and I wanted to show a sense of movement. So, I cranked up my aperture to f14 (which allows me to worry a little less about focus) and slow my shutter-speed down to 1/125 at ISO 200 (I almost always shoot at ISO 200 in lieu of 100 when shooting people on bright sunny days, because I enable highlight tone priority on my 40D).

You may be thinking I'm crazy, that shooting moving objects at such a slow shutter speed will yield blurry images. Well, it depends. If I were to photograph a moving object coming towards or going away from me, a slow shutter-speed is a BAD IDEA. But, when the subject is moving parallel to me, I can pan with a slow shutter-speed, allowing the subject to be clear and in focus, and the background to be motion-blurred. Panning may take a little practice to get used to, and you will not always be successful, but it's a great way to make an action shot really come alive. I've found that, depending on the speed of the subject, I can shoot at anywhere from 1/80-1/400 and achieve the desired blurry background and sharp subject. When panning, or shooting any moving subjects, have your camera set to AI Servo, and Full-Blast shooting (the icon with the "H" next to multiple frames).

Something to be aware of, however, is that if your subject is moving on any other axis in addition to their trajectory (i.e., if the bird's wings are flapping, the skier is spinning, etc.) those areas will not be as in focus with slower shutter-speeds.

I hope you enjoyed this tip, and have a great day!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Be Prepared, Even if You're Unprepared

"Fallen Leaf Falls"

"Be prepared" is the modo of the Boy Scouts.  I was a scout for most of my life, and certainly live my life under that creed... often times to the point of odd-wonderment or amusement on the part of others.  

The other day I arrived home a little earlier than usual... well, a lot earlier than usual.  It was noon, and a beautiful day.  I didn't feel like sitting inside and playing on the computer, and I happen to live (at the moment) in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, South Lake Tahoe, CA.   So, I decided to have another photo-adventure.  My neighbor informed me of a waterfall near Fallen Leaf Lake, a beautiful glacial lake next to Lake Tahoe, and said it was about a 30 minute hike.  

Eager for the adventure of newness, I grabbed my case-logic camera bag, tripod, and set out towards Fallen Leaf Lake.  However, since it's winter, Fallen Leaf Lake Rd. was closed (a fact I found out upon reaching a gate).  No worries, I'm always up for a bit of a nature walk.  Of course I realized that this unexpected turn would likely add a bit of time to the 30-minute prediction.  

It was a warm walk through melting-snow-covered cedar forest, but once I got to the lake, the wind picked up.  This made me incredibly happy, because that meant snow was blowing in, and I LOVE when it snows.  But, that also meant I had to pick up my pace, because I didn't want to be caught in the snow after dark, and the sun was getting lower in the sky.  

Well, after about an hour and a half walk, I arrived at Glen Alpine Creek, which empties into Fallen Leaf Lake.  I love waterfalls, and natural bodies of water in general, so I was very excited when I saw the size of the waterfall.  It was huge, covered in ice and snow, and picking up a beautiful glow from the light of the clouds.  The deep snow around the rocky bank made for some very precarious positions on my part.  I hustled all over the place trying to find good angles, while at the same time not getting footprints all over the foreground.  


I only brought my Tamron 18-250 lens, which was just not wide enough to capture the whole scene from where I needed to be.  Normally I would also have my Canon 15mm fisheye lens, but I neglected to throw it in my bag.  This meant I was going to have to take multiple frames and stitch them together in Photoshop to get the whole scene.  Also, the light was so bright, that even at ISO 100 and f22 I wasn't able to get the shutter-speed slow enough to get the effect I wanted on the moving water (even at +2 stops for the Auto-Exposure Bracketing I do for my HDR images).  Fortunately, I was prepared with my Hoya Neutral Density Filters.  So, I slapped a 6x ND filter on, which gave me the slower shutter speed I wanted.  

The clouds were beginning to get spectacular, and the reflected light on the snow was disappearing.  I had to act fast.  Camera on tripod, shutter-release cable attached, I framed the bottom-right 8th of the image with my lens set to 18mm, and took three exposures at (-2, 0, +2), then immediately shifted the angle of my camera up to fill the lower-middle-right 8th of the image, making sure to overlap about 30-40% of what was previously framed, and repeated the exposures at the exact same settings.  I continued this process in a counter clockwise fashion another 6-times until I had 8-bracketed frames of what would be my final image.  (for a total of 24 RAW files).  I made sure to frame the scene in a way that I could capture more of the surroundings than I would want in my final image, which I'll explain later.

I did this for a few different angles until I lost the light, and then headed back.  I wasn't worried about hiking in the dark, because I always hike with a headlamp and spare batteries.  But it was getting colder and windier.  Well, I wish I could make this story more exciting, but it didn't start snowing until after I got home.  But the skiing the next day was EPIC!


Like I said, be prepared, even if you're unprepared.  Even though I didn't have my fisheye, I was able to make do with my 18mm.  Some of you may be wondering how in the world I got away with combining wide-angle images with Photoshop's Panoramic stitch option without ending up with an impossibly distorted image.  Well, it's simple.  After I created my High Dynamic Range images with Photomatix Pro, I selected them in Adobe Bridge (8 in all), selected Tools>Photoshop>Photomerge, and then the photomerge window popped up, asking what type of merge I wanted.  I from the options of automatic, reposition, cylindrical, etc., I always select automatic, and then click "Geometric Distortion Correction."  "Blend Images Together" should also be checked... it is by default, but if not... well, Duh, blend your images together!

Photoshop with chug away for a while, but once it's done, you have (usually) a beautifully merged image.  Before flattening the image, zoom in to 100% to check for weird spots where the images don't quite blend together correctly... you may need to do some blending by hand.  My image was blended wonderfully, because each frame overlapped one another by about 30-40%.  The more they overlap, the easier it is to blend them together, even if I were to use my distorted fisheye.  

Remember how I captured a bit more of the surroundings than I would want?  One thing you will notice once your image is merged, is that the edges will either bulge out or pull in (due to shooting with a wide-angle and applying Geometric Distortion Correction).  This can be corrected with minor adjustments using the warp tool, or lens distortion filter, followed by cropping.  So, basically, anticipate the need to crop a little when making any type of panoramic image.  Don't get caught with having to crop out something you wanted in the image, or warping your image to the point that it's more of a Picasso than a photo.  

That's all for today everyone.  It's been snowing here non-stop for 5 days now, and I'm exhausted from all of the powder I've been skiing.  Time to rest!

Be Well!