Fall Color and Frustration

This is one of those days when I’m not satisfied with anything that I’m working on, in the digital darkroom at least.

Before I even started trying to process any of the shots from last weekend, I downloaded the trial version of Topaz Adjust and six other Topaz products (they have a great deal on their bundle right now).  I wanted to see how Topaz might handle some of the single exposure shots that I took of the aspens.  Even though I took almost every shot as a bracketed series of three, I knew there would be some issues with processing them as HDR’s because of how windy it was last Saturday.  I was thinking that I might just stick to processing the single exposures, and I wanted to see how some of the presets in Topaz Adjust might render them.

Anyway, after downloading the bundle, it took me a little while to get it to work in Paintshop Pro, not because I had installed it incorrectly, but because I was testing it on a raw NEF file.  Evidently, TA doesn’t play well with raw NEF files (at least in Paintshop Pro).  When I fed it a JPG or TIFF file, there was no problem. But by then I had wasted an hour and was ready to move on.

So then I decided to start looking through the bracket sets to see if there were good candidates for HDR.  You know how it is, you take all these shots and in your mind you imagine how great they’ll be….but then they just don’t turn out like you pictured them.  That’s been my evening.

Here are a couple of HDR’s that I produced this evening, using Photomatix V4 (I’m still trying to decide if I like it or not), with follow-up processing in Paintshop Pro.  These were taken on Snowbowl Road, north of Flagstaff, Arizona, using a Nikon D5000 with the kit lens (18-55mm), tripod-mounted:

Autumn Color 001

Autumn Color 002

I mean, I think they’re okay, but still they’re not as crisp and detailed as I would have liked.  I did run them through Topaz Adjust just to see how the presets would render them–it was pretty freaky and not at all an improvement.  I know I need to learn more about processing, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried to do these as HDR’s.  But you never know until you try.

Let me know what you think (and be gentle!).

My First Shots of Star Trails

We just got back from a four-night camping trip to the Mogollon Rim, northeast of Phoenix, Arizona.  We stayed at the Canyon Point Campground about twenty miles east of Payson, at about 7,000 feet altitude.  The temperatures are about 25-30 degrees cooler than they are here in Phoenix, which was our primary consideration when choosing a campsite (it was about 108° when we left town on Monday).  Of course, my camera equipment was my most important gear on this trip.  I knew that we were going to be out in the National Forest during the new moon, so we should be able to see tons of stars, and my goal was to make my first attempts at shooting star trails.

I have read Harold Davis’ book “Creative Night“, which has some great tips for shooting just about anything after dark.  However, my Nikon D5000 doesn’t have quite all the bells and whistles as a more expensive camera does–plus I’m still a novice at photography in general.  So, although I picked up some good information from his book as well as some other websites, I was pretty much winging it when it came to figuring out exposure times and settings.

Our first attempt (my hubby kept me company on the shoot) was on Wednesday night.  It had rained that day, but by about 9:00PM the clouds cleared out.  There were hardly any other campers in the campground that night, so we just set up the tripod on the road near our campsite and pointed the camera toward the north (I wanted to get a good circular pattern from the stars).  I had no idea of how long to leave the shutter open, so I started with ten minutes.  I have a wired remote, so I stood there with my thumb on the remote button for the entire ten minutes (not realizing that I could just slide it forward to “hold” it open).  I was using my kit lens (18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6) set on manual focus, 18mm, at F/4.  At the end of ten minutes, here’s what I had:

Star Trails 001

It was a little windy that night, so the trees aren’t all that sharp, but I liked the way I could see star trails after only ten minutes.  So I decided to try a 20-minute exposure:

Star Trails 002

Longer trails on that one, plus I started picking up more ambient light.  And finally, a 30-minute exposure:

Star Trails 003

I was very happy with this shot, as I thought it had a nice balance between the star trails and the ambient light which silhouetted the trees.  There was still quite a bit of noise in the photo, however, but I’m not sure how much can be removed without destroying the star trails.

The next night the skies were absolutely clear, but there were more campers in the area–cars driving by, flashlights, campfires– so we set up the tripod and our lawn chairs near the back boundary fence of the campground, as far as we could get from the other light sources.  It was a little spooky, to say the least, since we had to keep our flashlights turned off for the full duration of the exposures.  We knew there were skunks in the area, but we weren’t sure what else there might be scuttling around at night in the woods.  Once again I aimed the camera to the north, but this time I set the aperture at F/5.6.  The first shot was a 40-minute exposure:

Star Trails 004

It was during this shot that I got buzzed by a bat that came flying out of the darkness, barely visible in the starlight. By then, the temperatures had dropped into the mid-forties, and neither of us had packed our warmest jackets, so I decided to try just one more shot, this time for a full hour. And we almost made it–my battery died after 55 minutes–but I think it was the best shot of the series:

Star Trails 005

Each of these were shot in raw NEF format and processed in Paintshop Pro X3.  On each one, I tweaked the contrast and sharpened slightly.  On a couple of them, I used PSP’s noise reduction option, but didn’t get the results that I was looking for.

Regardless, I had a great time hanging out in the dark, experimenting with a type of photography that I haven’t done before.  Since we can hardly see the stars at all here in the city, it was a treat just to be able to sit under the night sky and marvel at the vastness of the Universe.  But seeing the star trails in these photos reveals what a wondrous marvel of celestial engineering exists up there!  We lost track of the number of shooting stars that we saw, including one huge, really bright one that left a sparkling gold trail behind it.  I can’t wait to go back and try these again.

I’m hoping that some of my blog readers can offer some tips and suggestions on ways that I can improve my star trail photography.  What equipment do you use for this type of shot? What post-processing steps could I use to make them better?


Estrella Star Tower at Night – with Ghosties!

Through a fortunate turn of events, the rain we were having yesterday morning moved out of the area during the afternoon and left us with just enough clouds to make a beautiful sunset.  I decided to take advantage of the break in the weather and head over to the Estrella Star Tower to see what it looks like at night when it’s all lit up.  I dragged my husband and sister-in-law along with me, but I don’t think they minded! 🙂

I was using my Nikon D5000 with my Nikkor kit lens (18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 AF), mounted on my Sunpak tripod.  I shot everything in aperture-priority mode using a cable release, letting the camera control the shutter speed. I had the aperture wide open to allow as much light in as possible.

Shooting at night is an entirely different animal, especially if you haven’t done it a lot and don’t have the users manual with you for reference.  The first few shots I took were pretty good, but then I noticed that I still had the exposure compensation set at -1.3 from my previous shoot.  So on the fourth or fifth shot, I got that little problem adjusted and was rewarded with a little more balance of light in the shots between the tower, the sky and the foreground.  A great example is below (all photos shown here are JPG’s straight from the camera with no processing):

Estrella Star Tower

I like the way I was able to capture the reflection of the lights in the water to the left as well as the lights of Phoenix reflecting off the clouds.  The clouds were really not that bright to the naked eye, but with the long exposure time, they really popped in the photo.  If you look closely at the base of the mountains, you can see a white light trail from the passing cars.

We then climbed the tower, which has a spiral staircase running around the outside of it.  About halfway up, I paused to take some shots of the mountains to the east.  The only problem was that it was too dark for my auto-focus lens to work, and for the life of me, I could not remember how to get everything set for manual focus.  I finally remembered how to change the setting in the camera menu, but I completely forgot about flipping the A/M switch on the lens itself.  So, I just pointed the camera at the mountains and crossed my fingers, and got this as a result:

Not too bad–I like the light trails from the traffic and the airplanes–but I would have liked to have had more control over the shot.  And now that I’ve screwed it up once, I know what NOT to do next time.

After taking a few shots from the top of the tower, we came back down and I decided to get a few more shots on our way out of the park.  By then the sky was darker, so I knew I’d get some different colors in the clouds.  Did I ever!  I didn’t notice it at the time I was shooting, but when I got home, I found that the clouds were full of sparkly “ghosties”:


I blame this one on my very first photography instructor who told us to always have a 1A (or “skylight”) filter on our lens to protect it from dust and scratches.  But I’m finding that it’s not such a good idea to use the filter at night when shooting scenes where there are bright points of light, because the filter creates reflections of the light points that get redirected to inappropriate areas of the shot….like the ghosties in the sky on the shot above.  If it weren’t for the ghosties, I’d really like this photo, but as it is, I guess I’m just gonna have to go back out there and try it again–not that I mind!

I really enjoyed this shoot, and I do honestly look forward to going back out there again in the near future–but this time I’ll be armed with more knowledge and better technique!  If you would like to see the entire set of 21 images from this shoot, head on over to Flickriver for a look-see!


Swans Up Close and Personal

Tonight I returned to the photos that I took at Encanto Park a couple of weeks ago. I got quite a few of the swans and ducks that play around in the water throughout the park, and while they are pretty mundane shots (who doesn’t have photos of these ducks and swans??), they are giving me the opportunity to just play around with some of the features of Paintshop Pro that I haven’t used very much.

While I like to shoot bracketed images and process them as HDR’s, it’s not always possible to do that with moving targets, so I have to adjust my expectations when processing single-image photos, and try to tease out all the detail possible.  This shot of a swan was a bit of a challenge.  The white feathers under the almost-midday sun were almost blown out on the swan’s back, although the neck area retained a good bit of detail.  I like how the water droplets on the neck area show up as well:

I played around with dodging and burning on this one, as well as some of the Level functionality.  I lost count of the number of times I hit “undo”, but it was all about experimentation tonight.  I’d like for these photos to be more than just snapshots–we’ll see how well I succeed.


On the Lookout for Wildflowers in Cave Creek

With all the rain that we’ve had here in Central Arizona this winter, we’re all expecting a fantastic spring wildflower season.  The desert is covered with a beautiful green blanket right now, and the buds on the trees are a reminder that spring is just around the corner.

I was surfing the Internet this morning to see if there were any interesting outdoor activities going on in the Valley that would make a suitable subject for today’s photo shoot, when I came across something that sounded perfect.  I found that one of our county parks, Cave Creek Recreation Area, was going to be hosting a two-hour workshop titled “Nature and Wildflower Photography 101”.  There was no charge for the workshop (except for the $6 entry fee to the park), so I decided to check it out.

The workshop started at 10:00AM, and I got there about 45 minutes early, so I spent some time wandering around the Nature Center before the program started.  They have seeded the area around the Nature Center for wildflowers, so there was a nice profusion of poppies, lupine, desert sunflower and brittlebrush, etc.  I decided to use the macro setting on my D5000 because I wanted to get some good close-ups.  As I found out later, this wasn’t the best idea.

While I was able to get a good close-up of the flower, the depth of field was much too narrow for what I was trying to capture.  It was hard to tell just by looking at the results on the camera’s LCD screen in the bright sunlight, so I didn’t know just how unsatisfactory it was until I got home and looked at the images on the computer screen.  Still, some of them made rather interesting shots, and I think that with some creative cropping they may be salvageable.

The program itself was very “101”…the guy did a nice job of talking about the importance of making sure that your light source is low in the sky and behind you to get the best lighting on the subject (generally true), and he also talked about some of the best places to find wildflowers in our area.  He showed a lot of the photos that he’s taken in the area and used them to demonstrate the use of depth of field, composition, and contrast.  And he said “do not use the macro setting on the camera for taking photos of flowers”.  Now he tells me.  He was a very “old school” kind of photographer who shoots in JPG and does not use photo-editing software…what you see is what you get.

After the session was over, I decided to hike down the Overton trail a little bit to see what might be growing along the trailside.  The wildflowers are just now starting to appear on the trails so there weren’t any big patches with lots of color.  But I did find plenty of opportunities to try taking shots with the lens zoomed in, using aperture priority mode, instead of using the programmed macro mode.

I didn’t intend to walk very far, but it seemed that every time I walked around a curve in the trail, I found something else that I wanted to see.  The trail started to climb, and before I knew it I was too far to turn back, and I was on the backside of the mountain where I had started out.  Fortunately I had taken a bottle of water with me since the temps were getting up into the low 70’s, and we all know that it’s a dry heat out here.  So I decided to complete the loop trail, a distance of almost 3 miles.  By the time I reached the 2.5 mile marker, my feet were killing me even though I was wearing hiking boots.  Gotta get some gel insoles!  I will have to say that the trails in this park are very well maintained.  They are multi-use, meaning that they are shared by hikers, mountain bikers, and horses.  All I can say is that there is a reason that the plants there are so healthy, judging by the amount of horse manure on the trail.

According to the workshop instructor, the wildflowers are just now starting to bloom, and will last until about the end of April, about the time that the cactus start to bloom.  So I still have time to get some of those shots that I messed up by using my macro setting.  I even purchased a season pass to the Maricopa Parks system since I’m really enjoying visiting the different parks in the area with my Nikon.

When I got home and started processing the photos, I got a little frustrated trying to work with the raw NEF files.  It seemed that anything I did to them only made them look over-processed, especially on the wide shots of the desert landscape.  For those images, I had better luck with the JPG files.  I’ve posted several of these to my Flickr photostream in the set titled “Cave Creek Recreation Area“.

Not sure how much time I’ll have to shoot tomorrow.  We’re going to Arcosanti next weekend, so I have some chores and errands that I need to take care of tomorrow in preparation for a busy workweek.  But it was great to get outside in the fresh air today and enjoy the beauty of springtime in the Arizona desert–although my muscles will probably be screaming at me in protest in about 24 hours!


The Joys of Layering In PSP – The Sikh Fountain

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I had one more shot that I was in the process of editing.  I’ve spent some more time on it, and while it’s not perfect (especially if viewed at full size), it gave me a lot of practice using layers, the Lasso selection tool and the Eraser in Paintshop Pro.  Let me start from the beginning to illustrate.

I took three bracketed shots at ISO 100, aperture-priority at F/6.3, 30mm.  The first one was the “normal” exposure:

Normal exposure

The second shot is underexposed by -2.0EV.  Notice how this one gets a lot more detail in the bushes outside the windows in the sunlight behind the fountain.

Under exposed

The last one is the over-exposed (+2.0EV) shot.  This one revealed more of the details and color under the roof.


The first thing I did with these shots was to run them through Photomatix to produce an HDR image:

HDR from Photomatix

I liked everything about this image except for the burned-out, over-exposed greenery behind the fountain.  I couldn’t find any way in Photomatix to adjust it away without ruining the rest of the image.  So I decided to do some editing in Paintshop Pro X3 to try and get rid of it.

I went back to the original images to find the one that had the best detail of the greenery, and decided to use the under-exposed image.  I opened it in PSP, and then I opened the HDR image, copied it and pasted it as a new layer on top of the under-exposed image.

I then used the Lasso selection tool set to “Smart Edge” and outlined the inside of each of the windows.  Once this area was selected, I used the Eraser tool to erase “through” the HDR to the underexposed greenery below.  The results are below:

HDR edited with layers

I think the results were worth the effort!  I wouldn’t be able to enlarge this photo to its original size because the edges are not clean when you zoom in on them…I need a lot more practice, and I need to learn how to tweak the tools correctly.  But I learned a lot through this little exercise, and now I feel a little more competent with Paintshop Pro X3.  Let’s see what else I can get into!!


Glendale at Night – HDR Processing Marathon

I had great fun tonight processing the photos that I took last night in downtown Glendale (see my post from yesterday).  I had sixteen sets of three bracketed shots to work with, and I processed them all. Once again I used Photomatix to create the HDR image, and then did some post-processing in Paintshop Pro.  Tonight I did a little more experimentation during the processing in Photomatix, and I actually wound up using the Tone Compression tab more often than the Detail Enhancement tab.  The photos I was processing had a great deal of contrast, and the Tone Compression option seemed to produce a more pleasing result.

Here’s an example of the difference between the two processes.  This first HDR was produced using the Tone Compression option:

Bitz-ee Mama's - Tone Compression HDR

The photo has a great late-night diner feel to it with the roof fading into the night sky. The “Open” sign is clearly visible in the window, and the lights on the building provide some nice areas of contrast and interest.

Now here is an HDR produced from the same three photos, but this time I used the Detail Enhancement option:

Bitz-ee Mama's - Detail Enhancement

This shot kept all the detail of the trees, even the green one behind the building (keep in mind this was shot at about 9:00 PM so it was dark back there).  I’m not sure which of the shots I like best, but they’re certainly different.

Another first for tonight’s processing was that I got some experience in using layers in Paintshop Pro to do some burning and dodging on one of my HDR’s.  I shot a street scene, and during the third bracket shot (the over-exposure), a car drove by and I got the typical red and white trail of lights, which was fine.  However, it also created some glare on the backs of some of the vehicles parked on the side of the street.  When the HDR processed, this glare was badly burned out in areas, and no matter what I did with the sliders in Photomatix, I could not fix it.  Here’s the shot with the bad area highlighted:

HDR with burnout

So I decided to try my hand at masking.  I opened up the best of the three shots, which was the one at normal exposure, and then I layered the HDR image on top of it.  Then I used my Eraser tool to “erase” the burned out area and allow the clean image to show through.  I wound up totally removing the light trail since part of it was burned out–I couldn’t just leave part of it and erase the rest.  The result was not perfect by any means, but it did look a heck of a lot better, especially when viewed as a normal web image at 600X400:

HDR masked

So now, it’s after midnight, and I’m in the process of uploading my shots to Flickr, and for some reason it’s taking forever.  Probably because I’m ready to call it a night and go to bed!


More Gateway Trailhead and Less HDR Nirvana

I finished up the HDR processing on the remaining 63 photos (21 series of 3 bracketed shots each), and I came away with 17 more photos that were usable.  As the sun set while I was shooting yesterday, I evidently was pushing the camera to the max of its capabilities to capture what I was imagining in my head.  The low angle of the sun created some deep shadows, but at the same time the areas that were sunlit were extremely bright.  So I ran into some real challenges when trying to get some decent HDR’s tonight.

This first shot didn’t turn out that badly, I don’t think.  I was trying to capture the way the sunlight lit up the dense needles of the cholla almost like a halo.  I didn’t want the sun itself to be in the picture because it would have overexposed it, so I think it works well with the light source just barely appearing on the right.

Gateway Trailhead 037

After this shot, I got a little greedy and started trying to actually capture the setting sun between the arms of the cholla.  And sure enough, when I started trying to process those shots in Photomatix, they were almost impossible to tone-map in a way that satisfied me.  And then I happened to set the Saturation slider to zero (primarily out of frustration), and I came up with this shot:

Gateway Trailhead 058

It almost looks like it was taken at night by moonlight.  While it wasn’t the shot that I had set out to capture, I decided that I kind of liked this treatment, so I kept this one.  Not everything has to have 100% color saturation, right?

The shots after this were a hodge-podge of hits and misses.  Many of them had such intense contrasts between the highlight and shadow areas that they were unusable–the amount of noise in the HDR version was tremendous.  At some point I may invest in some noise-reduction software and go back and see if I can get something usable out of those files, but for now they go to the archive.

Gateway Trailhead 067

The shot above, for instance, was taken inside the visitor’s center where the setting sun was shining through an opening in the wall.  I loved the way it made the wall glow in the deep cedar tones, and the saguaro growing through the opening in the roof was a great touch as well.  After I took this shot, I repositioned my camera so that I could actually see the sun going down….and that turned out to be a mistake.  I took about three bracketed series looking straight at the sun, and when I processed them in HDR, they turned out miserably.  They were just excessively noisy.  But like I said, I may go back to them at some point and see what I can do with them.  Also, I haven’t done anything with any of these photos beyond tone-mapping them in Photomatix.  I may go back to some of them in Paintshop Pro to see what improvments, if any, might be made.

So, what did I get from this hour of shooting, followed by about five hours of processing? I got some good lessons in late afternoon shooting:

  • Be conscious of where your shadow is–several of my photos show my shadow very distinctly.  Several times I remembered and tried to either duck down or move out of the way, but a wired cable release will only let you step away so far.
  • Remember to use a lower ISO setting.  I have my camera set to ISO 200 by default and didn’t even think about changing it.  But as one of my blog readers pointed out (thanks, Martin!), I should use a lower ISO when I’m using a tripod…why not?
  • HDR is good at capturing details in highlights and shadows, but it’s not a miracle worker.  Shots that have very intense, colorful sunlight can be tough to work with when they also contain very dark shadow or silouette.

So I came away with a total of 27 shots that I actually liked, some more than others, and they can all be seen on my Flickr page.  Take a look at the portfolio and let me know what you think!


Digital Darkroom – Zoo Shots

I’ve finally gotten a few hours to concentrate on editing the photos that I took at the Wildlife World Zoo last Saturday.  Since these are all single exposures (no bracketing), I skipped the whole “let’s-try-to-make-an-HDR-out-of-nothing” process, and decided to stick to the basics in Paintshop Photo Pro X3.

I found that the software does a fantastic job of providing options to the user, from the very basic “One Step Photo Fix” that could very quickly clean up a batch of snapshots from the family picnic, to a full gamut of sophisticated tools for adjusting the images down to the very fine details.  The user interface is intuitive and well-organized, and the software loads up much faster than the previous version did.  All in all, I’m very satisfied.

I edited twelve shots tonight and uploaded them to Flickr.  Here are just a couple that I especially liked (reduced in size):

I’m still trying to decide where and what I want to shoot this weekend.  I have a few ideas–the problem is that I want to do them all, and I know I can’t be everywhere at once.  I’ll wait until the weather forecast is more precise and then make my decision tomorrow.

I was checking online today for some local classes or workshops that might be interesting and helpful in learning all the in’s and out’s of exposure and focusing, and I found a workshop that is presented by Arizona Highways magazine that sounds like it would be perfect.  It’s a five-hour classroom course taught by one of the professional photogs for the magazine that covers all the basics of all those mysterious combinations of f-stop, ISO, shutter speed, and focus.  The workshop is in late March, so I’m pretty sure I’ll sign up for it.

Tool shots with the built-in flash

Well, my fifteen minutes of fame are over–I’m no longer featured on WordPress.com’s home page.  It was fun while it lasted, but now it’s back to obscurity.  Sigh.

Once again it was almost dark by the time I left work, plus I had some chores that needed to be done, so my photography for this evening was all indoors with the built-in flash.  I really don’t like using the built-in flash when trying to take close-ups shots of subjects, but I thought I’d give it a whirl just to see exactly how much I didn’t like it….turned out to be quite a bit.

My hubby’s workshop has lots of little odds and ends lying around, so I zeroed on in a few things and took about ten or twelve shots, handheld, on the camera’s Auto setting to see what I could get.  Afterwards, I processed a few of the JPG files in Paint Shop Pro, and here are some of the results:

Not my best work, but it gave me a chance to use the camera today, so what the heck.

Finally!  A book that I ordered about three weeks ago finally came in.  It’s “Digital SLR Camera & Photography for Dummies”, 2nd edition, by David D. Busch.  Unlike most of the books in the Dummies series, this one has tons of full color photos in it.  I’m anxious to start looking through it and hopefully gathering some tips that even a dummy like me can understand!

I’ve also started looking around the Internet for recommendations on a new camera bag that will be large enough to hold my camera and three lenses, my filters, cleaning stuff, and my users manual.  I also want a new flash, a new tripod with a better head, and some more software.  Like I said before, this hobby can be expensive!!