Mill Avenue Bridge at the Blue Hour

To me, the “blue hour” is the most beautiful part of the day for shooting architectural features with lights, especially if they’re reflecting off the water.  The blue hour is that period of twilight each day between full darkness and sunlight, when you can still see stars but there’s just a hint of light in the atmosphere.  Many amateur photographers (myself included until I learned better) will take hundreds of shots of sunrises or sunsets, but never extend their shooting time into that magic hour when the sky turns a deep indigo.

Last Saturday on our photowalk in Tempe, we were fortunate enough to be at Tempe Town Lake before the blue hour started, so we had plenty of time to find our best angles for shooting.  Here’s one of my favorites from the morning’s walk….the east Mill Avenue Bridge.  There are two parallel bridges that carry vehicular traffic over the lake, one running inbound and one running outbound.  For this shot, I was between the two bridges, facing east.

Mill Avenue Bridge East

I actually took three bracketed shots here, but I chose to only process one of the images, the one that was slightly under-exposed. I used Topaz Detail to get a little more texture in the bridge, and then used Topaz DeNoise to clean up the artifacts. A little tweaking with the Curves took and a little final sharpening was all it took.

Compare this shot to the one that I took a few minutes later after I walked further east and then turned around shot both bridges.  The blue hour doesn’t last long, so be prepared to capture it before it fades away!

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The Payoff for Getting Up Early

Several of my photographer buddies from work decided to do an early morning photowalk in Tempe, Arizona this past Saturday morning.  The plan was to meet at the Starbucks on Mill Avenue between 6:00 and 6:15 AM.  Since it’s a 35 minute drive for me to get there, I had to get up at an ungodly hour (for a Saturday).  It was so tempting to just bail on the guys, but I thought it would be a great chance to compare notes with other non-professionals, plus get some good sunrise shots on Tempe Town Lake.

There were four of us (not too many, not too few), and we had a great time exploring the area on the south side of the Lake from before dawn until after the sun rose.  I’ll be posting more shots from our photowalk, but I’ll start with this one:

Tempe Town Lake Just Before Dawn

To the right is the Mill Avenue bridge which carries vehicle traffic. To the left you can see the light trails created from the passing of the light rail train as it traveled over the Lake. The boats are just waiting for the sun to come up to start taking passengers.

You can see more shots from our photowalk in the set that I’ve posted on Flickr, called Tempe Photowalk 2011.01.15. I’ve just started processing, so more images will be added to the set soon. I’ll be posting a few more on this blog as well.

This was my first photowalk, and I’d like to thank Ed Brice for organizing things for us, and Adam Schmid and Kurt Neurauter for lots of great tips and good humor. I had a blast and look forward to more of these excursions!

Moonrise over Thunderbird Park

The weather forecast for today called for quite a bit of rain, but it turned out to be a sunny afternoon with clouds starting to gather in the west about 4:00PM, so I decided to see what kind of sunset we might have.  I packed up my gear and headed back to the same hilltop that I visited earlier this week in Thunderbird Conservation Park in north Glendale.

I got setup in plenty of time to just sit back and enjoy the breeze and the fresh air from the top of the hill.  Hikers passed by fairly often, some of whom asked some friendly questions about shooting the sunset.  There was a big cloud bank in the west, but it was absolutely clear to the east (which I’m sure made the folks at the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tourney very happy), so it didn’t look too promising for a great sunset.

Sure enough, the sun slipped behind the cloud bank with a minimum of flare and color.  I shot quite a few bracketed series, but I’m not sure that any of them are that exciting–I’ll know more when I start processing them.

BUT–when I started to leave I found that the full moon was rising in the east, right between two mountains.  I took a couple of shots from my tripod-mounted camera with the normal lens, but wasn’t that impressed with the results.  So I packed up everything and headed down the hill.  Back in the parking lot, I packed up my gear, gave Andy a call to let him know I was on my way home for dinner, and then started driving out of the park.

And that’s when I saw it.  As I rounded a curve in the park, I was confronted with the perfect view of the full moon rising over one of the taller mountains with the iconic silhouette of the Arizona saguaro clearly visible.  Without a second thought, I whipped my car into the nearest parking lot, swapped lenses on my camera, mounting the old Quantaray 75-300mm zoom, and sat down at the nearest picnic table to steady my arms as I zoomed in on the face of the moon (I didn’t even bother getting the tripod out of the case!).

And here’s the result:

I’ve done absolutely no further processing on this shot–it’s straight from the camera.  I have to say I’m very pleased with it, especially since it was done hand-held with an old lens (ISO 250, F/10, 1/80s, -2.0EV).

So, tomorrow I’ll go through the sunset shots, but this one image alone made it worth sitting on top of that hill for an hour.

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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!

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HDR Sunset in the Park

Ever notice that you find the best things in life when you’re looking for something else?  When I left work today, I was on my way to north Hayden Road to look for a place to set up for some possible shots of the sunset.  I was headed west on Princess, and before I got to Hayden Road, I spotted a park where there was a cool pedestrian bridge that looked like it might make a good foreground for a sunset picture.  I whipped the car into the parking lot, got out and explored for a few minutes.  I found that there was a little overlook that had a perfect view of the sun setting over the mountains (although it was a bit too cloudy in the west for a lot of great color).

I got my camera out of the car, and for once I had plenty of time to set everything up and think about what I was doing.  I used the tripod and the cable release with the camera set on aperture-priority mode at F/6.3, and took a series of bracketed shots at +/- 2.0.  Once I was sure that the sunset was pretty much over as far as dramatics, I turned around and took some shots toward the east where the “blue hour” was beginning.  For these shots, I changed the aperture to F/16 to increase the depth of field.  My ISO setting on everything was 200 in an attempt to reduce the noise.

I processed the shots in Photomatix, and I was fairly pleased with the results.  Let me know what you think!