Friday, August 24, 2012

"...That's when I knew I was being struck by lightning!"

The Confluence of the Colorado River and Green River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.  
It's funny how sometimes when you end up in exactly the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, you can look back and recount very accurately the series of events and decisions that brought you there.  My life is FULL of happy accidents, and divine "interventions".  I posted a little over a year ago about a time when I found myself living in South Lake Tahoe, and happened upon someone buried in a tree-well under feet of heavily falling snow.  You can read about that here.  I don't believe in coincidences... or rather, I believe that everything is connected, and nothing happens without causal reason.  I also feel a deep connection to the divine energy present throughout creation, and gratefully share its majesty.

The Journey

I was heading back to Las Vegas from Colorado, where I left my car while I was in Hawaii to avoid baking in the desert, and was planning on stopping in Canyonlands for a day or so, as is my modus operandi.  My intention was to capture a time-lapse series of the night sky over the canyons, and continue to Vegas.  I was quite successful in capturing the night sky at False Kiva (That will be a supplemental post).  The next day, however, my reason for returning to Vegas, a client who booked a portrait shoot, called and cancelled.  So I was faced with the decision to keep going to Vegas, or head down south to the Needles section of Canyonlands and explore new territory.  I looked at my map and saw that I could hike to the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, or hike inside the Needles.  Both places looked pretty cool as per my google image search, but the Confluence was the only place I knew I could have an interesting foreground facing west, so I planned my route and went.  Vegas could wait an extra day.

According to what I read, the hike to the Confluence overlook was 10-miles round trip.  It was a clear, hot day.  My car thermometer read 107.  But I had plenty of water, food, and first aid... I had a feeling it would be a great day of rugged beauty.

I couldn't help but think of Aaron Ralston as I entered the southern canyonlands.  I met him at an event I sang for, where he was the speaker.  His story of being pinned by a rock for days and having to cut off his lower arm to escape has always motivated me to be a little more careful about letting someone know where I'm planning on hiking.

I stopped by the ranger station and informed the ranger on duty of my plans.  He made sure that I knew there wasn't much cover on the hike to the confluence, which I did.  It was early in the afternoon, and I figured it would take me about an hour to an hour-and-a-half to hike the 5-miles.  That would leave me plenty of time to explore the rim and set up the best angles.

Horseshoe Bend
Horse Shoe Bend, Page, AZ
After parking at the trail head I double-checked my supplies and headed towards the confluence.  The trail was actually pretty easy to follow.  Cairns were distanced pretty close throughout the journey, so I knew I could find my way back at night, since I wasn't planning on back-country camping (although I was prepared to).  Aside from a few little lizards and crows every now and then, the landscape was devoid of wildlife.  After about three miles I noticed thick clouds about 15 miles to the southeast.  Nothing overhead but sweltering sun.  I really hoped I would get an interesting composition for sunset... maybe if those clouds would head my way.  Every time I've ever visited Horse Shoe Bend in Page, AZ, a similar landscape, I end up with a pretty boring sky, or typical head-on composition.

Getting There

I arrived at the Confluence Overlook at about 5:00... about an hour and a half from my time of departure, but I still had about 3-hours before sunset.  After checking the time on my phone I turned my phone back off to save battery.  The overlook didn't offer much in the way of interesting compositions.  So, I hiked around the area looking for better compositions, careful not to hike on the cryptobiotic crust.  During my scouting I came across a couple of sound-capturing devices mounted on tripods.  I could only imagine what types of sounds they recorded.  I thought of this article that a friend shared with me about the sounds of different habitats over time.  Very cool stuff.

I found the perfect spot.  A flat area of rock a little south of the overlook had a great view of the confluence and the bend in the joined rivers.  In order to fit this tight scene from that angle, I would have to use my 15mm Canon fisheye and photograph a panorama.  I set up my camera and tripod and took some test shots.  A couple of clouds had formed in the sky creating shade from the hot sun.  It was a relief.

Satisfied with my composition, I covered my camera, stashed my gear under a rock overhang, and laid down for a little nap (camel backs make great pillows!).  I still had about three hours until sunset, and I was kind of beat.  I must have slept for a couple of hours, very comfortably I might add, when I was woken up with rain dropping on my face.  Nothing heavy, just big fat drops here and there, but the sky was filled with thick clouds, and I could see sheets of lightning and hear rumbling thunder.  I enjoyed the refreshing coolness of the rain for a moment before taking shelter under the rock overhang along with my gear.

The Storm

The rain picked up and became a deluge.  I was completely dry under the five-foot overhang of sandstone that created a natural shelter.  Fortunately for me, the wind was coming from behind the my alcove.  The rain turned into hail, and lightning was striking very near behind me.  I decided to put everything metal from my pockets in my camera bag, just in case.  It was quite the show... although I was a little worried that the wind might knock over my tripod.  I watched my camera, fifty yards away over boulders, exposed on the ledge of a cliff, covered in protective rain gear, sitting steady on its tripod, and internally kicked myself for not grabbing it and bringing it to the shelter with me.

As fast as it started, the hail let up to light rain.  The clouds continued on, and blue sky showed above me.  I watched the storm blow across the canyon, like a heavy metal concert in the sky.  I had no idea what time it was, or how long I had slept.  So, reflexively I pulled out my phone, which had been off most of the hike, and turned it on to check the time.

That's when I knew I was being struck by lighting.
This photo from a few years ago was
taken by Fred Morlege (photofm).
I reprocessed it to make it look
a little more "electric"

The air suddenly felt very warm and still.  My arm hairs stood on end, and I could smell the electricity.

Suddenly, a tremendous noise, as though from inside me, boomed as a power chord played on an over-amped bass guitar through an arena-sized subwoofer.  I was lifted off the ground... just a little jump, I'm not sure if from being startled, or from the concussion of air the sound made, but inside my torso felt like I was experiencing a few G's... like riding a roller coaster.

From my phone danced a white spark like a foot-long flame that traveled down my arm and through my body.  Everything flashed white!

It smelled kind of like metal tastes.

Immediately I turned off my phone and crouched underneath my overhang, quick to put my phone back in my camera bag.  I smiled out at the storm and replied, "Got the message... no phones."

The storm continued on.  I watched as it settled over the land on the other side of the canyon, and the sun started to dip below its far edge on the horizon.  I started to get excited.  This was going to be an AMAZING sunset!

I've photographed lightning before, but
was unable to get any this time.  This is
a scene from Graz, Austria.
As the sun continued to dip below the storm, the rain, hail, and clouds started to glow with shades of orange, red, and magenta, and the tops of the clouds were a rich blue.

I have often mentioned my enjoyment of the music of nature.  This sunset was one of the best songs ever!   Everything was in harmony: powerful, gentle, water, rock, sky, red, blue... this was a gift!

Gratefully, and cautiously, I stepped out of my alcove and headed down the rocks to my camera.  It was INCREDIBLY windy!  Behind me another set of storm clouds were a few miles away, but moving in.

Bathed in Light

Then the sun broke through and illuminated just the ledge I was standing on, and the wind died down.  Everything was fresh, warm, and vibrant.  I was bathed in light.  I felt so much gratitude to be taking part in this beautiful portion of creation.  The sun continued to move down and illuminate more of the ridge, including the overlook, which glowed red.

A view of Confluence Overlook, the confluence, Island in the Sky, and the sound-recorder.

I was smiling so big by this time!  "This is perfect," I thought, "Thank you!"  Then, realizing the light wasn't only shining on the rocks, out loud I whispered, "Where's the rainbow?"

 I ran on top of my shelter (about 20 feet of solid rock higher), and saw to the southeasteast the gift I was looking for.  A double, very red rainbow.  I laughed with joy, even as the wind returned in force.  I was much more exposed up on top than I was twenty feet lower.  So I hurriedly composed and captured a 7-frame panorama of the scene, and headed back down, where it was less windy, to capture more of the sunset.

The sun slowly slipped away, and the dusk crept softly in.  The wind calmed, and the sky opened up to the northeast (the direction I would have to hike back).  I collected my things and headed towards the trail.  I walked as long as I could without turning on my headlamp, but eventually turned it on to make sure I was on the trail.  The hike back didn't seem to take nearly as long as the hike out.  The entire time, the storm stayed behind me and to my right, occasionally flashing and rumbling.  Ahead was clear.  The entire time, I was filled with gratitude for the gift of life, and the knowledge to never to fear.

Both my phone and myself are in top working order.  Thanks for reading!

Be well!

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Travel, Magic, and the "S" Curve, Part 3.

"Snake Road" Waipi'o Road on the Big Island of Hawai'i.  
This is Waipi'o road, the mile long (or so) stretch of road that snakes down 2,000 ft into the Waipi'o Valley. I have the utmost respect for the people that built this road! In places it's pitch is more than 30 degrees, and it is posted that only 4WD vehicles are allowed to drive on it. It is fairly difficult to walk down, and quite a cardio to walk back up. But the scenery at the bottom, and the view from the top are both well worth the effort.

I took this image on my way back up. The cloud-covered late afternoon light provided nice soft shadows. And the lovely "S" curve of the guardrail gave me a nice excuse to pause and catch my breath.  It should be noted that the horizon line is at about the third support for the guardrail.  I captured this at f11 to give a sense of the length vs height of the road ahead.

This is a Vertorama created from 3-horizontal HDR frames using Photoshop CS4. Each frame was created from 3-RAW images using Photomatix Pro.

The "S" Curve

Part of what excites me about doing what I do is experiencing the music of nature.  That is why I will almost never include man-made objects in my images, unless they completely compliment the landscape.  This rugged, steep road and blue-steel guardrail certainly added a since of balance and respect for nature against the lush forest backdrop.  I have so much respect for the people that built and maintain this stretch of road.  (Honestly I have loads of respect for most people who build most things!  I just find natural landscapes to be more pleasing photographic subjects).

I started noticing a few years ago how most of my better landscape images all exhibited a common compositional feature... the "S" curve.  I find this curve incredibly pleasing!  It is feminine, strong, organic, and powerful, and allows the eye to easily wander across the scene.  Often times I see S curves over the field of a large scene with a really up-close foreground, which is why many of my images are panoramas or vertoramas.  The beautiful thing about finding the "S" curve is that it immediately creates a balance... a yin-yang effect, if you will.  Just know, sometimes the S is more implied than others... but that's where we get into composition.

If You're already familiar with the Golden Ratio and Rule of Thirds, you can skip this section.  

Rule of Thirds
But let's start from the beginning.  Basic photographic composition requires knowledge of the golden ratio, or so-called "rule of thirds".  The golden ratio is present in all life, down to our very DNA.  It is predictable, fractal, simple and complex.  By recognizing the balance in a scene--often times we are recognizing mathematical relationships between objects of matter, light/dark, and/or color--we are recognizing the golden ratio.  The thing is, we are not always aware that that's what we're recognizing.  And thus, often times when we pull over to the side of the road to photograph something pretty... pull out our camera phones for a quick snapshot... or even take the time to go hiking with a tripod, we get images that are lacking in some way.  That's when we say, "Well, the image doesn't do it justice"...or..."well, you really had to be there."  By learning to look for this golden ratio, every image you take will be better!     
The golden ratio. 
DaVinci: Vitruvian Man
Here's a VERY unartistic, boring, mathematical look at a few combinations of the golden ration one can employ while composing an image (note, these are just a few combinations).  You can begin to see how combinations of this nautilus pattern will create "S" curves.  

Here's the idea put to the test.  This is an image I took a couple of years ago while hiking to Coyote Buttes (The Waves) in between Arizona and Utah.  Because this is a reflective landscape, it should already be symmetrical.  

In order to obtain this image, I rested my camera about an inch off the ground, and focused on the reflection in the water, rather than on the physical peaks of the ancient dunes (although the dunes are compositionally the focal point).  The other aspects of the image that I wanted to include are the bush, the two peaks to the left, and the frame of clouds.  Clouds are SO important when capturing landscapes.  Empty blue skies are just boring, and considered dead space.  You will NEVER see a professional landscape painting without an interesting sky.  

You'll notice that this image leads the eye from the peaks of the dunes either up to the sky, or down to the water (both following the arch of the clouds), and then finishes at the twin peaks and the bush.  This scene is well balanced from the foreground to the background; the curve of the golden mean leads the eye comfortably around the image, and is thus "pleasing to the eye."  

Here's another one of my older images.  This one was taken in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado about 4 years ago... before I really began to study composition.  This is one of those scenes that you walk by and can't help but be struck by its beauty.  The mix of autumn colors with silky water and frosty ice make for a beautiful image.  I feel like it's pretty easy to see gentle nautilus curve of the golden ratio in this image... but just in case, I went ahead and overlayed the nautilus. My focal plane includes the frosty tree and patch of moss on the right side of the image.  In this case you'll notice both how the golden mean is important in composing depth within an image, and how the lines of the nautilus curve and the rule of thirds can serve to frame internal aspects of the scene.  
See how the different sections of the overlay
correspond to individual scenes within the scene
"Hazy Shade of Winter" Green Mountain Falls, CO
In both sets of images straight, diagonal lines create a sense of movement through the image, leading the eye from one node to another.  You'll notice how in both cases the diagonal lines also coincide nicely with the arch of the nautilus curve.  

Earlier I mentioned that the golden ratio is both simple and complex.  It's easy enough to see how simple it is on a 2 dimensional plane.  But nature is NOT 2-D!  The golden ratio is present in everything, everywhere, all at once... and everything is ALWAYS changing... Super complex!!! Recognizing the pattern often just requires a shift of perspective, a different focal-length, a different lens (Don't bring the camera up to your eye... bring your camera into the scene, then bring your eye to the camera).  

To compose with the golden mean, usually finding a diagonal line that leads from one interesting area of the scene to another, and spans the length of the frame (at least implicitly), will do the trick.  That diagonal line will help lead your eye from the main point of interest (which will usually be an extreme foreground object and focal point), to the secondary point of interest further in the background.  You'll notice that most of my images have a focal object that is roughly equidistant from the edge of the frame to the edge of the diagonal.  Keeping the focal object away from the edge of the frame, and away from the center of the frame (rule of thirds) will heighten your chances of creating a dynamically composed landscape image.  This busy overlay shows how there are many leading lines of composition, and that each focal point in the scene begins a new nautilus curve that leads the eye to the next focal point, and then back again.  The shiny, metallic reflector on the lower left invites the eye to examine the metal guardrail, which leads up the leafy, cracked road to the next reflector.  The eye is then lead up to the top of the road to the power lines, and then descends down towards the large fern branch, which pours the eye back into the beginning of the scene.

The "S" curve

The "S" Curve Continued

That brings me to the "S" curve (finally).  Having an object, or a series of objects, create an "S" shape (often similar to Superman's Emblem) will automatically make your photograph conform to the "math of beauty" without you needing to actually do any math.  I don't think it's necessary to look solely for an "S" curve while out in the field, because that would be incredibly limiting.  But, it IS necessary to look for balance while composing a photograph.  Don't let the term "S" curve confuse you either... not always will the curve look exactly like the letter "S!"  Often times the curve is implied from the relationships of other compositional variables (i.e. foreground object, mid-ground object, background object, areas of light vs. dark, etc), and is in the shape of a question mark, or W, rather than an S.  The "S" is not necessarily a 2 dimensional (x and y axis) shape, but conversely often reaches from the front to the back of the scene along the z axis, leading the eye around the image.

Thanks for reading.  This concludes part 3 of my three-part series Travel, Magic, and the Letter "S."  If any of the concepts I discuss are confusing or new, please visit previous posts for clarification, or feel free to drop me an e-mail :-)

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All the best!  Be Well! :-)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Travel, Magic, and the Letter "S," part 2

Honu Magic at Punalu'u Beach, Hawaii

This morning at Punalu'u beach I was a bit distraught! The previous morning my camera lost all of its electrical functions... no LCD, no autofocus, no white-balance, no changing of ISO, no AEB! All I had use of were its mechanical functions, i.e. changing the aperture and shutter-speed, and depressing the shutter. I had no idea if the images I captured were actually being captured and recorded on my CF card. Fortunaltely, I could still determine the exposure, and adjust my settings accordingly. What made it all the more difficult is that as I increased my f-stop, my view-finder darkened, making it near impossible to focus on anything above f13. So, I had to dial my aperture down, manually focus (a huge challenge for me since I wear strong corrective lenses), and then dial the aperture back up. Without an auto-bracket funciton, I had to manually adjust my exposure +2 and -2 for HDR images.

HDR Pano of  stair-step falls captured during my
camera's haitus.
Here's a macro HDR of a Red Tower Ginger,
Captured by my dysfunctioning camera.  
A wall of jungle!  An HDR of Beautiful Parakeet Heliconias.
Also captured while my camera was being uncooperative.
I had just arrived in Hawaii, and would be there for over a month. I couldn't send my camera in to Canon, because then I would be without it for the duration of my stay. I decided to look at this as a challenge, and utilize my photography knowledge. After shooting with my defunct camera for a day, I was able to at least find power, lug my computer in, and check my CF card.  Pfew!  Fortunately the images were being written to my CF card... albeit they were all rotated 90 degrees from their correct orientation... but they were being written!

So, this morning I was walking the black sand/black rock coast, looking for interesting compositions for the soon-to-be sunrise, and I came upon this honu (sea-turtle), resting on the rocks. It is illegal to touch or disturb sea-turtles in any way, so I made sure to keep a comfortable distance... but I couldn't ignore the compositional opportunity. I quietly asked the gentle reptile if I could photograph it, and slowly it turned and looked at me with ancient eyes, blinked, and rested its head back where it was... just then, my camera beeped five times (a sound I've never heard it make), and all of the sudden the electrical components were restored! Nearly overcome with joy, I photographed this sea-turtle, thanked it, and continued on my way!

This is an HDR panorama from 2 HDR images, each created from 3-RAW images using Photomatix Pro and Photoshop CS4

A Note on Composition:

I suppose it's tempting, when encountering an animal in the wild, to focus just on the animal.  That is, to fill the frame with the animal, or try to get a photo with it looking at the camera.  Granted, I've certainly taken my fair share of photos of animals looking directly at me, where the surroundings are somewhat ancillary.  But I usually try to at least photograph the animal(s) as part of the landscape.  This scene, however, spoke to me in a much different way.  The turtle was looking into the sunrise, which was shaping up quite beautifully... explosively even.  If I were to photograph this turtle head-on, I would be missing out on the beautiful sunrise.  Also, were I to photograph this scene with a single exposure, either the turtle would have been very dark, or the sky would have been blown-out.  Granted, usually when photographing wildlife it's a good idea to employ a zoom lens, low aperture, and relatively fast shutter speed.  However, since the turtle was so still I could use my 18mm wide-angle lens and get pretty close, allowing for the inclusion of the shore, surf, and sky.

The beautiful sky had two components that I wanted to capture, the rising smoke from Kilawea (on the left), and the sunburst (on the right).  What isn't as apparent is that I am backed up to a wall of gnarly rocks, so I don't have much room to maneuver.  So, in order to make angles on the turtle, the smoke, and the sunburst (at 18mm) proportionally and compositionally pleasing, I had to shoot for a panorama. This would be an easy pano, though.  Only 2-vertical frames that overlapped about 60% of each other.  I lined up the turtle's gaze to coincide with the "S" curve from the tidewater to the sunburst.

So happy that I could again access my AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing), with my camera on its tripod and using my shutter-release, I auto-focussed - :-D - on the edge of the turtle's shell, then turned the autofocus off.  At that point I fired my bracketed shots at f20.  I then recomposed on the same horizontal plane a little to the left to include the volcanic smoke, and took my bracketed images at the same exposure levels.  

I decided to use the turtle's gaze as a compositional tool, leading the eye to the tidewaters, and then to the sunrise.  That way we're looking at what the turtle is looking at, AND, as a photographer, I'm not getting in the animal's way.  

It's very important, in my opinion, to always ask the animal's permission to photograph it, and then thank it when finished.  Granted, the animal can't verbally acquiesce, but I feel like communicating that intention with the animal generates a sense of mutual respect.  Never EVER feed wild animals, or try to touch them... not even chipmunks... animals may be cute, but treating wild animals like pets can be very detrimental to their health... but ALWAYS lovingly respect the animals.  I am very grateful to be able to experience nature and share its splendor by creating artistic photographs, and leaving only footprints.  

That's all for today.  Thanks for reading.  Make sure to check out part 3 of Travel, Magic, and the Letter "S," where I talk about discovering the S curve in landscape composition.  

Be well!

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Travel, Magic, and the letter "S." A 3-Part Blog. Part 1.

Blue Moon: Antelope Island, Salt Lake, Utah.

Happy Blue Moon!

Seeing as how I only post to this blog once in a blue moon, I feel it's fitting that August is a blue moon month.  To celebrate the celestial occasion, I am offering 50% off all of print purchases through the end of the month.  Just go to my printshop and at checkout enter the code: BlueMoon.  

I feel, in a way, as though I should apologize for the infrequent blog posts... but conversely, I don't want to just blog for blog's sake.  My goal with this blog is to provide useful photo tips, inspiring and/or humorous anecdotes, and to share my images.  I became a much better photographer because of the myriad bits of free information provided by other photographers (such as David Ziser, Trey Ratcliff, Scott Kelby, etc.), and I, too, want to share with others what I have come to understand through experienced practice and application.

That being said... what a time I've had over the past few months!  I performed in Opera Las Vegas' production of Don Giovanni as the Commendatore with Metropolitan Opera Musical Director Greg Buchalter, Metropolitan Opera Stage Director Jonathon Loy, and Met singers Philip Horst (Leporello), Jeff Mattsey (Don Giovanni), Amy Shoremount-Obra (Donna Anna), Luana DeVol (Donna Elvira), and Mark Thomsen (Don Ottavio).  I performed with the Palm Springs Opera Guild's outreach project, where I was able to sing for hundreds of elementary and middle school children each day for two weeks.  I passed all of my master's courses at UNLV with flying colors.  And on my birthday I sang a well-attended recital followed by a very successful art show.  Most recently I spent a month in Hawaii singing with the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival on the Big Island, where I performed as Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, in addition to singing in concerts and cantatas.  I just got back to the mainland a couple of days ago, and brought back about 200GB of images just waiting to be processed!

Part 1: Travel 
My rule when I fly is to never check my camera.  However, when I flew to Hawaii I had so much luggage (my computer, music scores, performance clothes, hiking clothes, portable portrait studio, guitar...), I had to make the hard choice to check my camera in lieu of carrying on my music scores and guitar.  Well, Murphey's Law prevailed, and my flight was delayed leaving Las Vegas, which put me into LA at the moment my connecting flight left for Kona.  I had to take a different flight to Honolulu, where I was put up for the night, and then fly from Honolulu to Kona the next morning.  When I arrived in Kona, my bags did not!  Worse, when the customer service agent re-booked my flight out of LA, they took my baggage claim stickers, so there was no way for the people in Kona to track my bags and let me know when they would arrive!

The Observed: Mauna Kea, Hawaii.  For this image
I didn't even need my shutter-release cable.  Just
30-seconds at f2.8 ISO 800.  
Well, I waited near the airport for a few hours, then drove around Kona for a while, trying to be patient until my camera and clothing arrived... after all, there ARE worse places to have to wait.  Finally, after 12-hours I got the call that my bags arrived!  I picked up my stuff at 19:45, and headed straight up the saddle road to Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain on Earth from its base under the ocean).  I got up to the summit around 22:00, and was surprised at how blasted windy and cold it was!  I quickly grabbed some warm clothes out of my suitcase, and set up my tripod... then grabbed more clothes, because it was COLD!  Fortunately, I always keep gloves and a beanie in my duffle bag.  The moon was at about half that night, but at that altitude it provided more than enough light.  I was amazed at how clear the milky way looked... more clear than from the mountains of Colorado or Wyoming!  I captured some beautiful images of the night sky, and then packed up and headed towards Hilo for a little warmer weather...

Rainbow Falls: Hilo, Hawaii.  It was rainy and
windy, so I had to be patient and protect my
camera to get a sharp image.  
Hilo was rainy and cloudy when I arrived, but that, to me, wasn't a bummer.  The sky was lit up a beautiful orange and purple from the reflected street light.  I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to capture Rainbow Falls in a different light than I've ever seen; every photo I've ever seen of Rainbow Falls is a daytime photo.  Normally, if the sun isn't obscured by clouds, the spray from the falls creates a rainbow during the morning.  The Hawaiian word for rainbow is Anuenue, which, to me, is a much more beautiful and appropriate term for the beautiful band of refracted light.
So, I arrived in Hilo around 1:00, pulled into the empty parking lot, walked the twenty-or-so steps to the falls lookout, and accompanied by a few curious ferrel cats I captured the falls.  It took a few tries to balance the light of the sky with the falls, and I eventually ended up "painting" the falls with my headlamp.
My original plan was to find somewhere nearby to camp until dawn, at which point I would then photograph the waterfall with its morning rainbow, but it was raining so hard that I decided, instead, to head down to Volcano National Park to get some night photos of Kilawea.

Halema'uma'u Crater: Volcano National Park, Hawaii.
I made the hour-and-a-half-long drive down to Volcano National Park, and made my way to the Halema'uma'u Crater at the Kilawea view area. At this point I was pretty tired, and ready to find a place to sleep.  But the orange glow was calling to me, so I exited my car and walked over to the view area to snap some photos... I honestly wasn't that impressed... I couldn't actually see into the crater, and the images, to me, looked like nothing more than long exposures of a campfire.  Although, yes, it was cool to be standing on the edge of an active volcano.  I was also a little peeved because there was a bit of construction going on, which prevented me from exploring as much as I wanted... and it was STILL raining, which made the prospect of finding a decent campsite all the more daunting.  Maybe I would just sleep in my car... but not in the visitor center parking lot.  Since I was in Volcano National Park, I figured I'd drive down Chain of Craters Road to the trailhead for the Pu'u O'o lava flow.  I arrived at the end of the road around 3:30, and decided to just sleep in my car until 5:00 so I could photograph the lava flow with the rising sun... 

Night Photography Tip:

Obviously, when capturing images at night, there is not a lot of light.  If you should use a tripod during normal landscape photography, you should DEFINITELY be using a tripod for night-photography.  Seems logical enough, but I actually know people who have tried capturing star-trails by placing their camera on a picnic table and holding their shutter button with their finger.  First of all, that would get really boring, really fast.  But secondly, there is no way you can compose a sharp image that way.  So ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS use a tripod... otherwise, why even try?  

Observatories at Mauna Kea use lasers to target distant stars during twilight. 
Calculating a proper exposure can be tricky depending on the phase of the moon, your altitude, the amount of atmosphere, etc.  Most newer DSLRs can photograph at a pretty high ISO without a lot of noise.  I don't have one of those cameras.  My 40D gets pretty noisy at ISO 1600.  Typically, if I want to photograph the milky-way, or any other night scene that doesn't involve star-trails, I shoot at ISO 800, f2.8 at 30 seconds.  With a 5D Mark II I could easily shoot at ISO 3200 for 30 seconds and get a much more defined Milky Way... so know your camera's sensor and shoot accordingly.  When photographing man-made light sources at night (cities, buildings, campfires, etc.), normally I have to quicken my shutter speed so that I avoid too many blown-out areas.  When photographing star trails, you have the choice of using your shutter-release cable and shooting a really long exposure, or shooting multiple 30-second exposures that you can later blend in photoshop for ultra-sharp trails.  I actually prefer the lighter sky that I get with a ten-minute, or so, exposure.  When shooting star trails, I dial the ISO back to about 200, and using my handy-dandy exposure calculator app on my droid, I can easily figure out how long to set the exposure at the lower ISO.  The image above is actually an HDR image created from 3-RAW images.  I wanted to show how clear the moon was, while still seeing the cool details of the sky and catch-light on the observatories.  You'll notice that since it's a combination of 3-images over the course of 50 seconds (30s, 15s, 4s) at ISO 100, that the final HDR image actually shows small star trails.  

Pu'u O'o lava flow on the Big Island of Hawaii.  
Focus can also be tricky with night images.  Autofocus will not work!  Therefore you have the choice of either setting your focus manually to infinity for a really sharp sky, or even better, using a light to illuminate a foreground object long enough to bring it into focus.  If there is any moonlight, the camera will expose the foreground and create a really stunning night photograph (nothing is worse than an out of focus foreground).  The above image of the Pu'u O'o lava flow provided enough light on the foreground that I was able to easily focus on the edge of glowing lava where it meets the dark rock without the need of a headlamp or other light.  This is actually a panoramic image merged from 4-images, two for the foreground, and two for the sky. Obviously, like when photographing a campfire and night sky, the fire is MUCH brighter than the stars.  While taking these photos I experimented with a technique called "black cloth," wherein I covered part of the image with a piece of dark material for most of the exposure, allowing for a balanced exposure (in this case, I covered the lower part of the image containing the lava, that way the ground wouldn't be too bright).  

I hope you found these tips useful... and if any were confusing, I cover everything I talked about in greater detail in previous posts, so feel free to explore my blog.  

Make sure to check out Part 2 of Travel, Magic, and the letter "S," where I talk about magic.  

Until next time.  

Be well!  :-)

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Cabrillo, originally uploaded by navandale.

Via Flickr:
Cabrillo National Monument is the southwestern-most point in the United States. I recently visited San Diego as a part of a tour with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Chamber Chorale, for which I am the Graduate Assistant and tour manager. It was a long and enjoyable tour, and we sang at numerous amazing venues, including the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala... the oldest church in California.

I've been wanting to do more long-exposure images of waves on a rocky shore, so when I got the opportunity to make my way here, I jumped at it.

I knew that I would have to cross a military base to get to the monument, but I didn't think that I'd have to clear security. Well, I took a taxi from my hotel, and after $30 we arrived at the guard shack at the gate to the Naval base. The guard told us that the park was closed, to which I replied, "Oh, I know, we're not going to drive in the park. He's going to drop me off and I'm going to walk down to the shore and do some night photography." She said, "It's a bit dark for photos, don't you think?" "Actually, I think it's perfect. We have a nearly full-moon, and that's why I have a tripod." She could tell that I wasn't going to hurt anything, so she let me through.

I then walked down to the shore, making sure not to veer onto any coast-guard or navy property. I found a promising composition close enough to the break that I knew I'd get some cool images, but far enough away that my camera wouldn't get wet. I was wrong.

As I looked through the viewfinder I was blasted with a surprise spray from the crashing wave below, and got absolutely soaked. I was less concerned about my cold, wet jeans than I was about my camera. I retreated up the rocks to dry land and proceeded to dry off my camera and clean my lens. Not wanting to repeat my folly, I continued along the shoreline until I found this nice little cove. "This is perfect," I thought. I climbed down and set my camera up facing north towards the orange sky. I first captured the scene at a high ISO with a 30 second exposure, just to make sure I would like the composition. Then, I used my handy exposure-calculator app on my DriodX to determine how long my long-exposure should be at a low ISO and higher aperture.

Happy with the images I captured, I decided to head on back. It was, after all, nearing 1:00am, and I had to sing in the morning. Unfortunately, there was zero signal for my phone.

As I walked back, I tried to call the taxi driver to let him know to come pick me up, but the call kept dropping. Not 100 yards into my uphill trek I saw approaching headlights. As the lights got closer I could see that the vehicle was a truck... then I could see it was a police truck. I politely waved and intended to just keep walking, but the police truck stopped.

The window rolled down, and I knew I would get some sort of talkin-to from the authoritar, but then I heard a gregarious female voice greet me. It was the guard from earlier. She was relieved from her shift, so she figured she would come make sure I was ok. Awful nice of her. Even nicer, she then offered me a ride back to town. SUPER LIKE! I hopped into the back of her cop-car, and must say that I never pictured my first ride in the back of a police vehicle as being so pleasant. We chatted a bit when another pair of headlights came our way. I muttered, "I think that's my taxi" as it drove past. "Maybe you should flash your lights at him" I suggested, but it was too late. We passed each other. So, she turned around, turned on her cop-lights, and chased him down. I could only imagine his confusion and anxiety at the oncoming lights.

I thanked the nice officer, and got in my cab to head back to the hotel. After apologizing to the cab driver, he informed me that he saw my number on his caller ID, and assumed I was ready to be picked up... I love how things work out!

This is not an HDRi, as many of my images are. This is a single exposure facing north. Viewing this image large allows you to see the star trails, and exquisite detail throughout. The light in the background is from what I believe is a streetlight. The only editing I did to this image was a tiny bit of sharpening, and a tiny contrast adjustment.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Valley of Death. Black and White HDR's, and finding the Abstract in Nature

I wanted to get to Death Valley while there was a full moon, because to me, Death Valley photographs stunningly well in black and white... and I'd much prefer hiking under a full moon than under a full sun!  Moonlight is so soft and diffuse that everything takes on a deep, mellow blue cast... pretty much black and white.

Rather than setting up my camera to specifically shoot in Black and White, I shoot in RAW, which allows me to edit the image in color before converting to Black and White.  Sometimes though, the mellow blue also works for a color image:
Death's Night Light - Midnight panorama from the Mesquite Sand Dunes
But, like I said, moon light makes for some great Black and White images:
Badwater Salt Flats reminds me very much of the moon.  Using my 15mm Canon Fisheye distorts the horizon slightly, adding to the feel of being on another world. 
Death Valley actually offers a tremendous amount of photographic opportunities... but can be quite monotonously red and orange outside of sunrise and sunset hours.  So, I took advantage of the early morning sun light to capture the contrasty shadows of mountains, hills, and sand dunes and get some beautiful Landscapes and Abstractions. 

Balance - Yin-yang abstract in Mesquite Sand Dunes.
Head of the Serpant - Sunrise at Mesquite Sand Dunes.
Kool-Sand - Landscape Abstract of the Mesquite Sand Dunes

Flaming Lochs -
Mesquite Sand Dunes
Landscape abstraction
of Flaming Blond
lochs of hair.

Salt Creek - HDR from 3 RAW images.
Yep, that's not snow. It's salt. This is Death Valley's Salt Creek. I initially wasn't planning on visiting salt creek, but as I drove past it I had to stop and photograph the salty, artery-like channels of shallow water. I knew that these would make beautiful Black and White images because of the contrast of white salt with the dark water. So, using the warm mid-day light I explored various compositions.  I couldn't imagine doing that during the warmer months.  As a black and white HDR image, the ground takes on qualities of a cloudy sky... subtleties of light/dark gradients that would otherwise be missed in a color photo add power to the otherwise monotonous landscape.

Thanks for reading!  Be well! :-)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Salty Shores: How to take Full Advantage Photoshop's Photomerge Feature; and justifying HDR processing

Why even bother shooting with a tripod?  I take really pretty pictures  with my smartphone or point and shoot camera, both of which fit in my pocket!

Why shoot in HDR?  They don't even look like photos!

Why not compose the scene in-camera and then crop the scene to make a panorama or square composition?  Why go to all the trouble of photomerging?

"Whiterock Sunset" White Rock Bay, Antelope Island State Park, Salt Lake, Utah

What a great time I had in Salt Lake City!  I was recently there auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera National Council, Utah District Competition.  Although I didn't win, I had a great time and sang well.  I haven't spent much time in Northern Utah, so I wanted to take full advantage of being in such a beautiful area.  I was hoping to go skiing, but the lack of decent snow promised that the skiing wouldn't be as fun. So, I sought out photo-worthy places... and where better than Salt Lake?

After a looking on the map, I figured Antelope Island would be the best place to go to get a good view of the sunset... although some locals suggested that I wouldn't find the island all that beautiful.  Fortunately, I decided to listen to my gut, and made the short drive to Antelope Island State Park.  I arrived around 1:30pm, so I had plenty of time to explore the island.  The Island is rife with wildlife.  I saw numerous Bison, Birds of Prey, Rabbits, Coyotes, and Beavers.  And, because it was so cold, there weren't a lot of people on the island. 
Bison Grazing in a snowy field near the visitor center. HDR from 3 RAW images.
Stopping for a quick pose before returning to the hunt. These Coyotes seemed to really enjoy hopping through the field looking for food... and in their impressive winter coats, these are nothing like the desert Coyotes near Vegas.
A camouflaged Coyote hunting for dinner just before sunset

Eagle Scouting.

This beaver looked more like an Ewok when I first approached it.
Weary and tired, it looked at me, yawned, and went back to sleep after 
scratching the snot off its nose.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed what the island had to offer.  But, it was getting close to sunset, so I figured I'd make my way to White Rock Bay on the northwest side of the island.  I parked at the trailhead and made my way towards the shore, about a 20 minute walk.  I discovered why the bay was called White Rock Bay, as there were numerous boulders scattered along the shoreline.  These would make a perfect foreground, so I started looking for interesting compositions.  

I was excited to have a good sunset, because the clouds overhead promised some dramatic colors.  But as I waited, the clouds shifted south, opening up the sky over the sun.  Bummer!  Oh well, I might as well stay and see what I get.  Then, right as the sun started settling on the horizon, some clouds moved back in and caught the spectacular light.  I made the best of the 30 minutes of changing light during the sunset, and captured a few nice compositions. 

Mud Flats
As usual, the scene before me was just too grand to capture with just one in-camera composition. So, I set up my compositions to photomerge in Photoshop.  

Here's the Hows and Whys:

Really, the whys are pretty simple:  
Q. Why even bother shooting with a tripod?  I take really pretty pictures  with my smartphone or point and shoot camera, both of which fit in my pocket!
A. Of course you take pretty pictures with your point-and-shoot or smartphone. That's what they're for, capturing a moment that you would otherwise miss.  Here's an image of the same scene I took with my Droid X smartphone with an 8 megapixel camera.  It got a lot of positive comments on Facebook when I uploaded it, and it is, indeed, a pretty image.  But, look closely and you'll notice that the detail is a bit washed in the mountains, and the foreground is very dark.  Also, the Highlights in the clouds are blown out on the right side of the frame, and the entire image is not very sharp.  The reason for a tripod is to steady the camera to ensure the sharpest image possible.  Typically, point-and-shoot cameras/smartphones photograph at a wide aperture (neighborhood of f4), which allows for faster shutter speeds, and decent instant portraits, but also a narrow field of focus.  When photographing landscapes, it is necessary to have a wide field of focus, and thus a narrower aperture (f18-f22).  This narrower aperture makes it necessary to have a slower shutter speed, in order to get a proper exposure... thus, requiring the use of a tripod.
White Rock Bay from my Droid X
Q. Why shoot in HDR?  They don't even look like photos!
A. Often times I am disgusted by the over-processing of HDR images I see on Flickr.  I don't even bother with those. But still, when non-photographers see an HDR image, one of their first responses is, "Oh Wow, is that a painting?" or, "That doesn't even look like a photo."  Well, they're right.  HDR images don't look like typical, one-exposure photos. People are used to seeing a photo-sensor's interpretation of the light-levels of a particular scene, which often times result in blown out areas of light and/or dark.  A High Dynamic Range image covers the light levels by more stops than a single exposure, so what we see in the image is closer to what the eye sees (if the processing is done right).  Now, I could get into a long discussion of artistic license when processing photos, and how often times nature photos look even better than real life in order to reflect the ideal... but I won't.  Below is an image of White Rock Bay taken at what would be considered a "proper" exposure for the midtones of the scene.
A Midtones Exposure (or, AEB=0) of White Rock Bay. A similar image to that taken by my droid.  You can see that this is much sharper, and the color quality is a but deeper... but there is still a lot going on in the foreground that we're missing out on.

Now, since I'm shooting in RAW, I could always go back and tweak the image in Adobe RAW by bumping the fill light. See below.
Screen-shot of the Midtones Image being Edited in Camera RAW. Very Pretty... But now the sky is washy, and we're still blowing out highlights.
Obviously this is a viable option... if you just want to share a pretty image online.  But if you want to turn your image into a printed work of art, you should really be taking the utmost care in its processing, which means minimal tweaking.  When zoomed to 100%, any fill light over 25 creates weirdness in the image... and yes, that's a technical term. So, since we're shooting on a tripod, let's go ahead and set our Canon camera's Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) to -2, 0, +2.  And, using either our cameras self-timer remote, or our shutter release cable, we can capture the Midtones, Highlights, and Shadows exposures of the same scene.  At home, we can combine these images using Photomatix Pro to get this:
This is the same scene straight out of Photomatix Pro. Notice the exquisite detail throughout. 
Now, this is a decent sunset image.  Pretty good reason for shooting in HDR, I think. But, the composition isn't quite as dynamic as the scene made me feel when I was there.

Q. Why not compose the scene in-camera and then crop the scene to make a panorama or square composition?  Why go to all the trouble of photomerging?
A. Really, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, I like a prominent, attention getting Foreground that leads the eye into the rest of the scene.  But, often times, in order to get the detail I want in the foreground, I have to sacrifice a lot of the background, including the sky.  The only feasible way to include the sky is to turn my camera on its vertical axis, which would then cut out the sides of the foreground. 

Also, a single frame only has a certain amount of mega-pixels, meaning that by cropping the image into a panorama or other smaller composition, you're sacrificing all sorts of detail, and will never be satisfied with your prints (unless they're small prints, then you might). When you create a panorama or vertorama, you have a lot more pixels to work with, and thus larger printing options.

So, I will usually place my camera on its vertical axis and take a series of bracketed exposures, carefully moving each series about 1/3 to either side, allowing for an adequate amount of overlap for the photomerge feature in Photoshop.  With the Mud Flats image above, I started from the right to the left, carefully taking 6 sets of 3 bracketed exposures, processed each set using Photomatix Pro, and then combined the images in Photoshop.  With the top image, I again started from right to left, taking 3 sets of 3 bracketed exposures, and then moved the camera up 1/3 of the frame to include the sky, and took 3 sets of 3 bracketed exposures moving left to right... thus resulting in a square composition with a prominent foreground leading to a huge background.  Total processing time for each image was around 15 minutes.

Here is my final image again, for easier comparing and contrasting.
I suppose this post was a little longer than normal, so I appreciate you reading.  I'll tell ya what, if you leave a comment, I will send you one of my 2012 Fine Art Calendars, free of charge... all you have to pay is the shipping.

Thanks for reading! Be well! :-)