Change of Focus – Shooting What You Live In

I’ve had my Nikon D5000 for almost a year now–the time has flown by!  And during the past year I concentrated on HDR photography and processing.  That required me to haul my tripod and remote release along with me whenever I went out to shoot, since I was shooting bracketed series for the HDR images. With the stability of the tripod, I never paid a lot of attention to the ISO settings, or much of anything else for that matter.  I just figured I could make adjustments to the images during the processing stage. With the bracketed raw images, I would have all the highlights, shadows and details to work with, without having to think about it that much.

But lately I’ve become bored with all that.  I’ve begun to realize that I don’t really know that much about how my camera really works, and what all it’s capable of doing.  I’ve also begun to get a little bored with the HDR “look” in my own work, although there are photographers out there who never cease to amaze me with what they can do.

So a couple of days ago, on a whim, I just picked up the camera and started shooting things around the house.  It was late in the afternoon, and the setting sun coming in through the patio door was creating some nice light patterns (and revealing how badly I needed to dust the furniture) in the living room–that light is what caught my eye and got me started.


I set the camera on aperture-priority mode, but opened the aperture wide to get a fairly shallow DOF. I also bumped up the ISO setting to get a faster shutter speed, and didn’t worry so much about noise for once.


I set the camera to monochrome mode because I wanted to experiment with some B&W shots. I also had it set to shoot RAW+Fine. I didn’t think about it at the time, but those settings combined to yield me both a black-and-white JPG along with a raw file that had all the color information in it.  Black-and-white AND color in the same shot.  Score!!


I just wandered around the house and the patio for a few minutes, shooting things that I ordinarily overlook in our day-to-day lives. Then I processed each of the shots differently, trying out various presets, settings and sliders in Topaz Adjust and Paintshop Pro X3. For once, I wasn’t worried about over-processing something…it wasn’t about making it look natural, it was about making something that I enjoyed looking at.

Coffee Press

And these are a few of the images that I came away with. There was something freeing about having the camera in my hands instead of on the tripod. There was a sense of control in adjusting the settings between shots just to see what effect it would have on the image.

I’m going to spend a lot more time working on images like these for awhile.  I think it’s a lot more Zen-like than the HDR “process”.  And maybe I’ll remember to dust before I do this again! 🙂


Checking out the Slopes – HDR or Not?

When we visited the Snowbowl Ski Resort recently, they had just had their first snowfall of the year the previous night.  It wasn’t enough to completely cover everything, but it was certainly enough to cause some excitement among the people who had driven to the top of the mountain just to view the scenery.  And, of course, the kids were thrilled.

I was happy to get a chance to photograph snow at the same time I was shooting pictures of the aspens.  I was shooting everything in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0.0/+2.0), in both RAW and JPG format, just to try and cover my options for processing.  I wasn’t sure whether I would want to give these the HDR treatment, or just work with the single images.

Here’s an example of just how different the processes can be.  I took this shot just around 1:00 in the afternoon.  It was heavily overcast, with low-hanging clouds and fog in the trees just a few hundred yards above where we were.  It was a tricky lighting scenario with the dark pines, white snow, golden aspens and gray clouds.  There was a guy and his two kids climbing the slopes, offering a great perspective of how large the trees and the slope are.

Here’s the shot I took at “normal” exposure (I had set the camera to Aperture Priority mode), and let the camera control the shutter speed.  This one was at F/14 at 1/100 second, with the Nikon D5000’s equivalent of ISO 100.  I tweaked this one a little bit in Topaz Adjust (yeah, I went ahead and purchased it last night), and then did a little more adjusting in Paintshop Pro X3 (CLICK THE IMAGES TO VIEW LARGE!):

Now here is the same shot, but processed as an HDR by merging the three bracketed images in Photomatix v4.  I used the Fusion preset in Photomatix, and used the de-ghosting functionality to take care of the movement of the hikers between the three shots.  I then did some adjusting in Topaz Adjust, with final tweaks in Paintshop Pro, and here’s the result:

I like the way the HDR kept the gray of the clouds while highlighting the gold of the aspens, and this one obviously has more detail of the snow on the pines but to me it looks over-processed.  And I don’t think either of the images are exactly what I saw, color-wise.

So, I’ll keep practicing and processing until I get better at using the software as well as the camera.  But, it was sure fun seeing the snow last week.  Hopefully it’s a sign of a good ski season just around the corner.

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?


Sikh Temple and Thunderbird Sunset

I think I’ve mentioned previously on my blog that there’s a Sikh temple just off the freeway that I see everyday on my commute to and from work.  It faces the setting sun and has nine gold-leaf covered domes that absolutely glow when the sun goes down.

Well, today I stopped by there on my way home from work.  The gate was open and there was no one around, so I felt free to grab my camera and tripod for some bracketed shots.  I believe that his facility serves as both a temple and a community center.  I was able to get a nice series of shots of the building with the setting sun hitting the domes, and then I also got a couple of shots that included the nearly-full moon above one of the domes.

There is also one other shot that I got under the archway, but I’m working on some masking on that one.  It’s tedious work, but I think it could wind up being the best shot of the day–I’ll let you know how it turns out.

After I left the temple, I drove another mile west to 59th Avenue and then north to the Thunderbird Recreation Area.  Andy and I have hiked here before, but I was looking for a way to drive to the top of the hill to see if I could get a good view of the sunset.  I found the right road and wound up in the perfect spot, but by then the sun had already dipped below the horizon.  No worries, I still grabbed my gear and set out on a short hike up the side of the hill.  (Note to self: Keep a pair of hiking or running shoes in the car.  Don’t wear your good shoes on rocky, sandy, steep hillsides.)

I was able to get a few shots of the valley under the setting sun that turned out halfway decent:

Although I missed the most dramatic part of sunset, I now have another location in my scouting notebook where I know I can get to quickly.  I would have stayed longer to get more of the blue hour, but I didn’t feel especially confident about hiking back down the rocky hillside in my slick shoes in the dark…so I took the coward’s way out and descended while there was still a little daylight left.

All of today’s shots were done in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0/+2.0) at ISO 100, aperture-priority, with an 18-55mm Nikkor VR zoom lens.  I processed them as HDR’s in Photomatix, and then post-processed in Paintshop Pro X3.

So it was a very Zen-filled evening–a great way to unwind after a busy day, prowling around in the sunset and then watching the results come to life on the computer.  I’ve uploaded the best shots of the evening to Flicker (click here).  Hope you’ll check them out and let me know what you think!


Now I need a model release??

What a litigious society we live in!  It seems that if I want to take pictures with a cellphone or a Blackberry, no one really cares.  They won’t even bother me if I have a point-and-shoot Coolpix.  But, boy howdy (as my Southern women friends say), just go out into a public place with a DSLR, and suddenly you’re a lawsuit waiting to happen.  And God forbid you should have that DSLR mounted on top of a tripod.  Agghh…the horror!!


I wanted to do a little night shooting tonight, and I wanted to do it somewhere close to home because I was tired, but I wanted someplace that had at least some minimally interesting lighting and architectural features.  So I decided to go across the street to Glendale Community College.  You know, the campus that my tax dollars help support.

I knew they probably had some kind of restrictions about taking photos on campus, but I decided to go for it anyway, especially since I had no intention of photographing any person, at least not close-up or in a way that they would be recognizable.  And I’m certainly not making any money by doing this.

I was able to get a few shots around the Student Union building on their patio.

I liked the way the arches and the awning were underlit against the night sky, and I thought the empty Pepsi cup on the table was a nice touch.  You can tell that someone just left there to go to their night class.

Then I shot this picture of a tree with it’s multiple trunks framing the lighted campus map.  I was shooting bracketed shots at ISO 100, aperture priority, so I had some pretty significant exposure times.  When I looked at the shots, all three of the images in the bracketed series had this ghosted image of the campus map super-imposed on the tree trunk.  Not sure exactly what made that happen.  Any ideas?

Anyway, I walked around campus a little more and when I came to the library, I just couldn’t help myself.  I knew what the answer would be, but I was just too tempted by all those books….I walked in with my camera and went to the front desk where two students were working, and I asked them if it would be okay if I took some photos in the library. (Thud!)

They, of course, had no idea how they should answer my question, so they went and got their faculty advisor.  He was very nice, but let me know in no uncertain terms that I could not shoot in the library, and should not be shooting at all on campus.  He told me he used to be a professional photographer, and then he gave me a (friendly) lecture about the importance of using model releases.

Now, I’ve heard and read about model releases, but being the naive, trusting person that I am, I just assumed that I didn’t need to worry about that since I’m just taking pictures as a hobby.  He assured me that, to the contrary, I need to get a signed release from every person that I take a picture of, or I could find myself in deep trouble if someone ever got upset about me taking their picture.  He said he always carried the release forms around with him when he went out shooting.

I rarely take pictures of people that I don’t know, and I certainly don’t intend to walk around with a stack of legal forms every time I go out to take a few photographs.  But I’m quickly finding out that I can save myself a lot of headaches if I just aim my camera at something that’s non-human, created and built by Mother Nature rather than constructed by man.  Especially if they have a marketing department.


Downtown Glendale After Dark in HDR

I decided to do something different this evening and try some night photography. But I didn’t want to shoot anything with lots of neon and color.  I wanted something more basic with a hometown feel, so I decided on downtown Glendale.  I talked Andy into going with me (with a promise of dinner), and we arrived at Murphy Park about 7:00PM, which is the heart of historic Glendale.  The park features a library at its center, and then the square around the park is lined with antique stores, a Taekwondo studio, a restaurant or two, some vacant space, a bank and civic buildings.  The surrounding streets have more of the same.

The streets are lit with reproduction antique lamps which give a very golden glow, but the buildings are most often lit with bulbs that are more on the bluish side.  It made for some interesting white balance challenges.  When we got there, I attached my camera to the tripod and we just started strolling around the square, stopping here and there to take series of bracketed shots.  I did remember that I should check my ISO setting, but I was disappointed to find that my camera will only go down to ISO 200.  So much for using ISO 100 for night shots on a tripod. I used a small aperture (high f-stop) to get more depth of field, so my shutter speeds were quite long.  During several of the +2.0 overexposure shots, the shutter was open at least 30-40 seconds–during one shot, three girls walked right through my shot, but of course they didn’t show up.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look:

Light Circles HDR

This is an HDR of three bracketed shots.  As I said, there is no sign of the three girls that walked through my camera range during the third shot.  Andy was so sure that the exposure would be ruined, and he couldn’t believe his eyes when I showed him the replay in the LCD on the camera and they were nowhere to be seen.  Isn’t light a wonderful thing?

I came away with 51 shots (17 series of three).  I was anxious to see what I had so I went ahead and processed the one above.  I used Photomatix to generate the HDR and tone-mapped it, and then I used Paintshop Pro to do some slight cropping, sharpening, and a little contrast adjustment–nothing major.  I’ll work on the others over the weekend.  Let me know what you think of the light circles!


Gateway Trailhead and HDR Nirvana

Since there was this big football game yesterday (Who Dat!!), I took an entire day off from my new obsession and managed to keep my hands off the camera for an entire day.  But I made up for it this evening.  As soon as the workday was over, I got in the car and headed east on Bell Road, took a left on Thompson Peak Parkway, and pulled in to the Gateway Trailhead, a beautiful spot at the base of the mountains.  There are several trails there along with an unmanned visitor’s center and a small ampitheatre.  Tonight the sunset was gorgeous again, and so me, my Nikon and my tripod spent about an hour taking multiple series of bracketed shots for HDR processing.

I wound up with a total of 93 shots, so tonight I only processed the first thirty into ten HDR photos.  And I have to say that I’m pleased with the first ten.

For once, it seemed like I had my mind in gear and I was able to take my time and compose the shots that I wanted.  I played with the tripod, raising and lowering it so that I could get different angles on the shots (maybe Santa will be good to me this year and bring me a tripod with a ball head!).  There was a great variety of vegetation as well as the structures of the visitor’s center and the bridges so that there was always something to add interest to the photos.

For all these shots, I used my normal lens (18-55mm zoom), set to aperture-priority, ISO 200, and I bracketed +/- 2.0 EV.  I processed and tone-mapped the shots in Photomatix.

I can’t wait to continue processing the rest of these tomorrow night.  Darn it, if I didn’t have to go work…

You can view the entire set on my Flickr page by clicking here.


Digital Darkroom – The Lizard and the upgrade

I said I was going to process one photo each evening this week from our trip to the zoo last weekend.  Tonight it has been a challenge.  At 7PM, I got to my computer and decided that I was going to purchase and download the newest version of my photo editing software, Paint Shop Pro.  The upgrade was available online for $69.99, so I fired up the Vaio and settled in, but first I plugged in my iPod so that it could recharge and sync up.  Mistake.  I got a notification that a new version of iTunes had been released, so I thought, “Why not?  Let’s just upgrade everything.”

Three hours later, I finally completed all the downloads and installations.  I have a new version of iTunes, new version of the software on my iPod Touch, Corel’s Paintshop Photo Pro X3, and the bonus software from Corel called Painter Photo Essentials 4 (which I’ll probably never use).  Since it was already so late, I decided “what the heck, I’ll just stay up and play with the new PSP!”

I selected another photo from our trip to Wildlife World Zoo last Saturday. This one was shot through the glass in the reptile exhibit.  Here’s the original JPG:

For this shot, I didn’t want to use flash since it would have reflected off the glass.  I used the aperture-priority setting, ISO 200, using my telephoto zoom set to 70mm, F/5.0, giving me a shutter speed of 1/60s.

I pulled the photo into my newly upgraded version of PaintShop Pro (I see that they’ve now combined “Paint Shop” into one word), and I immediately fell in love with the new user interface in this version.  The Organizer feature is much faster and provides a filmstrip view of the photos that was missing in X2.  The options in the editing menu are also richer, and even include some Tone Mapping.  I played with several of the options just to get a feel for them, and came up with this:

I think it looks much better.  I was able to reveal more of the fine details in the photo, and adjust the color balance which was a little off in the original, due to the type of lighting they were using in the exhibit.  I didn’t spend too much time on this, since it was so late, but already I can tell I’m going to like the X3 version of PSP!

Let me know what you think!

Wolf Moon

I’ve been waiting for the full moon ever since I bought my new Nikon, and tonight was the night.  Fortunately the skies cleared up, and around 5:45 this afternoon, the moon rose over the eastern horizon, and it was a beauty.  Unfortunately, I was still in my car driving down 59th Avenue on my way home from work after having stopped at Wing Stop to pick up food for tonight’s home movie night.

About ten minutes later I pulled into the garage, dumped the chicken wings on the kitchen counter, grabbed my old Quantaray 75-300mm zoom lens, got back in the car and drove two blocks south to where there’s an open field right across from a neighborhood park.  I was able to park on the side of the road and set up my tripod right behind my car, and I got several decent shots of the moon, although by that time it had lost most of it’s golden glow and was bright white.

This is the last shot that I took:

ISO 200, 300mm, 1/25s, F7.1, -4.0EV

I played around with the settings, using aperture-priority mode, and wound up having to underexpose the shot by 4 stops in order to get a good view of the features on the moon’s face.  Of course, having taken this shot, it has only made me wish for a longer telephoto lens.

Looking forward to a good weekend of shooting, wherever it may be!

When you can’t sleep, shoot!

I haven’t been sleeping all that well lately, and so when I woke up at 4:30 this morning I decided to just go ahead and get out of the bed and see what the sunrise might look like.  After showering and getting dressed for work, I gathered up my little camera kit and headed east toward Scottsdale while it was still dark.  I had checked the weather forecast before I left the house, and it didn’t sound promising (cloudy with a 30% chance of rain), but I was hoping I would get lucky and there might be a break in the clouds when the sun came up.

I staked out a spot in the same park where I shot on Tuesday evening.  As the eastern sky began to lighten, I could see that there wasn’t going to be much color this morning, but I thought I might still get some interesting photos with the street lights, car lights (in streaks), and the patterns of the dark clouds.  There’s a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the street, and I got a few shots of that as well, and then a few of the field house near the soccer fields. The clouds were heavy and low this morning, almost like fog, so some of these shots may work better as black-and-whites.

I checked the results in the LCD screen of the camera and I think I got some pretty good stuff, but I won’t know for sure until I get home tonight and start playing around with them.  I shot everything in bracketed series of three so that I can use HDR on them if I want.  I used aperture-priority mode, mostly F/16 so I could get long shutter speeds for the car lights, and ISO 200.

Even though the weather wasn’t what I was hoping for, it was still a great way to start the day.  It was relatively peaceful in the park with just a little traffic noise and a few joggers breathing heavily when they passed.  The cool air was invigorating, and I was able to slow down and play around with each shot, while at the same time enjoying the bird song and subtle changes in the clouds and sky over the mountains as dawn came.

Now, I’m in the office, enjoying my coffee, wishing I could start processing my shots.  I’m sure I’m going to be really sleepy this afternoon, but guess who’s going to be sitting in front of the laptop for awhile tonight??


I’ve had a chance to go through the shots I took this morning.  Some of them turned out quite well, some were disappointing….par for the course.  The gray, gloomy skies didn’t give me much to work with after the sun came up, but with a little HDR processing, I did come up with a couple of things that I was happy with:

The shot above is an HDR of three bracketed shots, the first three shots that I took after getting set up.  I like how the trail of the car taillights was captured, as well as the spiky halo on the streetlight.  At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted the streetlight in the photo, but since there wasn’t a good angle of the bridge without including the light, I just accepted it (very zen-like!), and it grew on me.

The shot below was taken at the field house after the sun came up somewhere behind all those low-hanging clouds. I liked the way the reflection in the windows mirrored the view of the soccer fields off to the left of the camera.  This was my favorite shot of the day.  It’s also an HDR of three different bracketed photos.

Hoping for a little more sunshine this weekend, maybe a trip to Sedona to do some shooting!