Dramatic Skies in Black & White

I’m a big fan of the Topaz Labs family of filters and plug-ins. I’ve been using them for several years now, and Topaz continues to improve both the functionality of the product as well as the user-friendliness of the interface.

Another thing that I like about Topaz is that they offer free, live webinars where they demonstrate how to use their products to achieve specific results. The webinars are offered about twice a week–usually there’s a one-hour version on Tuesdays, and then there’s a “Quick Tip Thursday” edition that addresses a more specific task. The webinars are recorded and made available for free on YouTube afterwards.

Today’s Quick Tip Thursday edition dealt with using the Topaz Black & White Effects plug-in to add drama to skies and clouds, without darkening up the rest of the photo. The process uses the selective color sliders in the plug-in to darken up the blues and cyans, while leaving the other colors alone. This technique works great on images where there isn’t any other blue in the shot.

After watching the demonstration, I pulled out an old photo from February 2011 that I shot at South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. This image was shot with the Nikon D700, using my 14-28mm Nikkor glass (love that lens!!). I had never processed this particular image, but thought it would be fun to use for this technique.

The first thing I did was open the image in Lightroom and adjusted the exposure just slightly, and added a touch of clarity.

Here’s what I had at that point:

20110220_295_SouthMtn copy_LROnly_800w

I then exported to Photoshop and opened the Topaz B&W Effects filter. Using the techniques that Nichole demonstrated during the webinar, here’s where I wound up (click to view larger in Flickr):

20110220_295_SouthMtn_LR_TopazBW

I think I probably overdid the sky just a little bit, but I was trying to push it to see how the technique worked. Overall, I like the results, though, especially since the foreground did not get darkened when the sky did. I do like the drama of the image, and how it highlights the feathering in the clouds!  This is something I look forward to practicing more in the future!

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Sedona – Clouds and Red Rocks

We spent the weekend in Sedona, one of my all-time favorite places to be in the entire world. Call it a cliche, but there’s just something magical about the landscape around Sedona, the way the sun lights up the red rocks at certain times of the day, and especially when there are dark clouds in the background.

On Saturday, the skies were mostly cloudy, making it difficult to get shots of the red rocks with that “glow”. It was also very windy, so any bracketed shots were sure to have ghosting issues from the movement of the tree branches.

Fortunately, we weren’t in any rush that day, so I was able to set up the camera on the tripod and then just wait for a break in the clouds and the wind to get the shot that I wanted. We found this one on Dry Creek Road. I believe it’s called Lizard Head Rock:

Sedona - Clouds and Red Rocks
HDR created from five bracketed photos processed in Photomatix v4. Post-processing in Paintshop Photo Pro X3, using Topaz Adjust / DeNoise.

I’ve just begun processing last weekend’s images, so I’m still not sure what all I came away with. Regardless, it was a fun weekend, doing some light hiking and lots of photography. We enjoyed our stay at Los Abrigados (although I’m still a little irritated that they didn’t provide the usual travel-size toiletries that most places do–they expect you to buy them in their gift shop or salon).

Stay tuned for more images from Sedona over the next week or so!

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Cholla at Midday

Yesterday I grabbed a sandwich for lunch and then drove over to the Gateway Trailhead, a small park on the Thompson Peak Parkway near where I work. After I gobbled down my sandwich, I got down to the real business of why I was visiting the park, and that was to take a few practice shots of the desert scenery. There were some beautiful cloud formations about that time yesterday, so I was hoping that I could find a composition that incorporated both the cacti and the clouds.

It turns out that’s a little harder than it sounds when you’re shooting toward the sky on a sunny day, while trying to keep your foreground subject properly exposed. Here’s a case in point–one of my favorite desert cacti is the cholla, sometimes known as the “jumping cactus”. When the sun is just right, the cholla seems to “glow” around the edges from the sunlight captured in the nearly-white spines. In the golden hour, it’s a beautiful thing. In the high-noon sun–not so much.

I played around with this one to try and get as much detail back in to the scene as possible, but it’s still a little blown out. I’m posting it anyway, because I think it’s a good lesson for me to remember–don’t shoot the cholla at High Noon (sounds like a Western movie title, doesn’t it?).

Cholla at Midday
Single image shot with my Nikon D700, 24-300mm zoom @ 28mm, F/16, 1/80s, ISO 100

Oh, and one more lesson–don’t go walking around in the desert in your thin-soled Mootsies Tootsies that you wore to work. The cactus spines will go right through them. Speaking from experience.

Scorpion Gulch After the Storm – Part 2

First, I just want to say thanks to everyone for the positive feedback this week on the images I’ve posted.  I’m not sure if it’s a result of the new equipment, the locations I shot, or (hopefully) my processing is improving–but whatever it is, the response has been great.  Thanks, all!

Tonight I’m presenting another view of  Scorpion Gulch at South Mountain.  You might remember that I posted an interior shot a couple of days ago. Today’s image is a look at the outside of the old homesite taken from the side.  Behind and to the left, you can see the top of the mountain where all the radio, television and cell phone towers are posted to provide communication services to the Phoenix area.  Quite a contrast between the old and the new:

Scorpion Gulch After the Storm

This image was taken with the Nikon D700 and the 14-24mm wide angle zoom lens that I acquired recently. Some wise person told me that I should go full-frame, and for this type of shot, I have to agree. It would be hard to imagine getting this much area into a single shot with the D5000 DX format, even with the wide angle lens. The sharpness of the images produced from this equipment still blows me away.

This HDR was created from seven bracketed exposures in Photomatix, with post-processing in Paintshop Photo Pro X3, using Topaz Adjust (Photo Pop) and Topaz DeNoise.

The forecast is calling for another winter storm front to be moving through the Valley this weekend. I’m scheduled to do my first client shoot (gratis) tomorrow morning, so I’m hoping that the rain holds off at least for a few hours. If not, maybe I’ll get some more storm shots!

Saguaro and Big Sky – and Guns

For tonight’s post I’ve returned to South Mountain and the great outdoors.  When we visited there last Sunday just after the storm front moved through, I was expecting it to be totally overcast, but in true Arizona fashion, the sun began to burn through the clouds by early afternoon.

I used my 14-24mm wide angle zoom to capture this shot of the saguaro in seven brackets for HDR processing.  It was pretty windy that day, but fortunately on this side of the hill there was only a slight breeze, so I got just a faint amount of ghosting from the ocotillo branches on the right.

Saguaro and Big Sky

Interesting story on this shot: When we got out of the car with the camera and tripod and started to hike up the hill, we suddenly heard gunshots. There were multiple shots, and they were very close by. If you know anything about Arizona, you know that (1) we have very liberal gun laws, and (2) we have a lot of people who carry guns openly. Andy and I just froze in place for a moment or two until we heard laughter close by. We decided to hike on up the hill, and then the shots started again. Call us crazy, but we kept walking but kept our heads down. Finally we got to where we could see three people at the bottom of the hill doing some kind of target shooting with a handgun. The kid that was shooting the gun didn’t look all that old, and his two companions appeared to be possibly his parents.

We tried to avoid eye contact from our position up on the hill. I certainly didn’t want to point the camera in that direction and have them misinterpret our intentions. They finally packed up and left about the same time that we did, after firing off at least 40-50 rounds while we were there. I don’t know what the regulations are in South Mountain Park, but I can’t imagine this is legal. In fact, I tweeted about it that afternoon, and I included the hashtag #guns in my tweet. And wouldn’t you know it, now I’m getting all these new followers (from bots, I’m sure), all telling me about the fantastic guns they’ve bought/sold/discovered. I’m blocking them all.

Oh, well, I’m really enjoying having more brackets to play with on these HDR’s. My Nikon D5000 would only shoot three brackets (auto-bracketed) at a time, but my D700 will shoot up to nine brackets. Not sure I need that many, but it’s nice to have options. Only problem is that the additional shots eat up space on my memory card as well as my hard drive. I’ll have to be much more disciplined about deleting those shots that I know I’m never going to use.

Looks like there’s another weather front moving this way for the weekend, so there’s a distinct possibility I’ll be out shooting clouds again. I love this time of the year here in Arizona!

If you like my work, please subscribe to this blog and feel free to offer comments. You can also find me on Facebook at ZannWalker Photography, and you can follow me on Twitter @suzanne_hight.

Prickly Pear in HDR

We had a wetter-than-usual spring this year, and as a result the prickly pear cacti are loaded with fruit that is just now starting to ripen.

Prickly Pear 001

As we were driving north on the Beeline Highway last week, headed toward our camping spot, we stopped just south of Rye, AZ on Gisela Road to look for some Indian ruins.  The map indicated that the ruins were about two miles off the highway, but we never did find them.  Instead we found a gravel road that led to the top of a hill that provided a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains as the summer storm clouds moved in.  When we stepped out of the truck to look around, we found these beautiful prickly pear cactus plants.  The fruit is edible and delicious, but of course you have to be extremely careful when handling it.  The juice makes great jellies, jams, and margaritas.

Prickly Pear 002

All of these images are HDR’s composed from three bracketed photos (+2.0/0.0/-2.0), processed in Photomatix, and then post-processed in Paintshop Pro X3. They were shot with my Nikon D5000 and the kit lens (18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 AF), tripod mounted.

Prickly Pear 003

White Tanks Regional Park at Sunset

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how important it is to follow your bliss, to be flexible enough to change your plans and go where the light leads you.  Yesterday as I drove home from work, heading west toward the setting sun, I noticed in my rear-view mirror that there were clouds building in from the east.  Since the Phoenix area is essentially a large bowl in the desert (hence the name “Valley of the Sun”), it’s possible to climb the mountains on one side of the bowl and see miles and miles in the distance to the mountains on the other rim.  So I decided to rush home, grab my camera gear and head to the west rim of the bowl, which is the White Tanks Mountains.  My plan was to go into the White Tanks Regional Park and set up my camera and tripod at the same location where I took my very first sunrise shots with this camera, back in January.  From this location, one can look all the way across the valley to the east, and I was pretty sure I could get some decent shots of the clouds moving in.

It’s about a 35-minute drive from our house to the White Tanks.  Andy wanted to go with me, so I waited for him to change out of his work clothes (I’ll admit I was mentally tapping my toes while I waited), and then we headed west.  I always get a little frantic when I’m driving to a location at sunset because I know how the light changes constantly, and I wanted to be sure that I was set up in time to capture the best shots.

We got to the park at little after 7:00 PM and found that they were only open until 8:00 PM–I had a little less than an hour to do my shooting.  I first drove to the the little overlook that I used back in January and set up my camera and tripod.  While the clouds were not as spectacular as I had hoped for, there was a little slice of a rainbow that provided just the right touch of color for my first shots.  I was shooting everything in RAW+JPG in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0.0/+2.0) so I could process them as HDR’s.

A little slice of rainbow

After about ten minutes at this location, the sun had set behind the mountains to our backs, so we got in the car and drove further into the park.  I finally found a spot where there were plenty of saguaro, cholla, and other cacti, with a good view of the surrounding mountains.  We parked the car and hiked a short distance off the road, and from there I finished up my shoot as the sun went down.

Evening in the White Tanks

As I processed the photos today, I was amazed to discover that the total time that had elapsed between the first shot and the last was only 25 minutes.  In that time span, I took 114 shots (38 three-shot series).  It just reinforced the fact that the light changes so quickly in the evening, and it’s important to be ready to capture every possible second of it.

Now for the technical details:  I processed the raw NEF files in Photomatix to create the HDR’s.  Normally I save these files as JPGs, but today I saved them as 16-bit TIFF files (they were about 73MB each).  I then processed each TIFF file in Paintshop Pro X3 to apply Local Tone Mapping, adjust Brightness and Contrast, Saturation, Levels, etc., along with removing noise and sharpening.  I then saved the files as JPGs, but without the usual 20% compression I normally use.  I wound up with 38 JPG files that were anywhere from 7MB to 16MB in size.

I did wind up with one image that I just could not process to my satisfaction…there was a lot of burnout in the sky, and I just couldn’t adjust it away.  So I wound up using one of the Paintshop Pro effects, Brushes, to turn it into a pseudo oil painting:

Brushstrokes

So, I’ve spent my entire Saturday processing these photos, but I feel very good about the way they turned out.  I’ve loaded the entire series (except for the one above) to my Flickr page in the set titled White Tanks Park at Sunset.  You can also view them on a black background (even better!) on my FlickRiver site.  I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think!

So, once again, following my Zen took me to a great photo shoot that I hadn’t planned on.  And to take it even further, as we drove home, we decided to stop somewhere for dinner, so we went south on Litchfield Road, then east on McDowell until we spotted Buffalo Wild Wings.  Yeah, I’m sometimes behind the times, but I had never eaten there and didn’t really know anything about it, but I liked the colored Christmas lights they had on the patio, so I whipped the car into the parking lot and we went in.  We had a GREAT late dinner of wings, salad, fried dill pickles, beer and ice cream sundaes.  My Zen scores again!!

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Desert Botanical Garden – Part Deux

I spent some more time tonight going through the remainder of my photos from last weekend’s trip to Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  As I suspected, most of the better shots were in the earlier part of the day before the sunlight because so harsh, but I did find a few that weren’t too bad.

The ten new photos that I’ve posted to Flickr tonight (only one of which is shown on this blog posting) were all made after lunch, from about 1:30 PM until about 3:00 PM, and the light had definitely shifted since before we stopped for lunch.  We had also moved into the part of the Garden that had more true desert displays, including a large area that contained displays of typical Apache and O’odham dwellings, animal corrals and vegetable patches.  This area was interesting, but not what what you would call “pretty” or “scenic”.  I got some decent shots of some of the displays and may post them later if I run out of anything better to concentrate on.  Toward the end of our visit, we wound up in another area that had some beautiful cactus blooms, and I’ve included some of those in tonight’s upload to Flickr, so check them out.

One of the displays that we visited after lunch was the Butterfly Habitat where, for a limited time, they have numerous species of butterflies and moths on display in a special humidity-controlled structure where you can walk in and actually have the butterflies fly all around you, often landing on you.  There are docents walking around with feather dusters to help remove them from your clothing as you get ready to leave the enclosure.

Inside the enclosure they had the misters running to keep things humid, so I had to make sure I kept my camera covered whenever walking under the spray.  The plants in the enclosure were much more tropical in nature than the desert plants in the rest of the Garden.  There were also several feeding areas setup among the plants, and there were usually several moths or butterflies hanging around each of the feeders.

Butterfly feeder

I took a lot of shots in here, but didn’t get a lot that I was really happy with.  The butterflies didn’t particularly want to pose for photos, and it wasn’t always easy to get the best angle for a shot with all the people around, the sun shining through the fabric roof, and the thick foilage of the plants.  I did get a few decent ones, however, and I posted some of the best ones to the Flickr set “Desert Botanical Garden – Phoenix“.

Some of the plants inside the butterfly exhibit were beautiful as well:

I used a fairly shallow depth of field on this shot, and I really like the softness of it and really don’t mind that it isn’t totally in focus.

Once again, all of the shots I posted tonight were processed in Paintshop Pro X3.  Hope you’ll stop by Flickr and see the ten new photos that I posted tonight.  And if you’re looking for something to do this weekend, I highly recommend Desert Botanical Garden (especially before it gets much hotter!).

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Yes, there is color in the desert

Tonight I got a good start on processing my photos from last Saturday’s excursion to Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  There was such a variety of plant specimens on display there, and I photographed so many different types of subjects, from closeups to landscapes, that it was hard to know where to start processing.  So I finally just started at the beginning.

So many people who have never lived in the Sonoran desert have the mistaken idea that the area is just brown and sandy.  True enough, there is a lot of brown, especially after the winter rains are gone and before the monsoon rains begin.  But in the spring, especially after an unusually we winter like we’ve just had, the desert blooms in the most amazing colors.  The Desert Botanical Garden showcases specimens not only from our Sonoran desert, but from desert environments around the world, and their displays are artfully designed and impeccably maintained.

Upon entering the garden, one of the first things that catches everyone’s attention is the glass sculpture created by Dale Chihuly that stands at the front gate.  I didn’t see one single person pass by this exhibit without either taking a photograph of it or posing in front of it for someone else’s shot.

While this photo only shows two of the sculptures, there are actually three of them.  To see more photos of this beautiful exhibit, check out my new set on Flickr, “Desert Botanical Garden – Phoenix“.

My processing workflow for these shots was pretty simple:  I used the JPG files, and processed them in Paintshop Pro X3.  For each one, I adjusted the Brightness/Contrast, applied Local Tone Mapping, adjusted the Saturation, and then sharpened.  Here are a few of the shots that I worked on tonight:

All of these are best viewed large and on black, so scurry on over to my Flickr set and check out the entire collection.  So far I’ve posted twenty-four, but more will be added as I get them processed this week.

On a technical note, I had been having problems for the past couple of weeks using the Flickr Uploadr (the utility that allows multiple images to be uploaded and edited more efficiently in batch).  Seems like every time I tried to upload a batch, I would lose my Internet connection after a couple of files had uploaded.  I would have to reset my modem and router to get the connection back.  After consulting with my ISP, Cox Communications, I determined that I most likely needed a new router.  Cox recently boosted the speed of their broadband service, and my router was only “wireless-G”.  I bought a new “wireless-N” router and set it up yesterday.  Tonight I was able to upload all 24 files in one batch (each is between 12MB and 17MB), and my connection never went down.  Needless to say, I’m a happy camper!!

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The Native Looks Back

I’ve been busy all day doing some of the chores that I’ve neglected for the past few weekends–like getting our final booking paperwork taken care of for our upcoming cruise.  Important things like that can’t be neglected!

However, I couldn’t resist playing with just one shot from yesterday’s jaunt at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  Right now they have a lot of sculptures by Allen Houser on display throughout the garden.  These are mostly large bronze works, and they add a lot of atmosphere to the desert flora and the surrounding landscape.

One of my favorites is below.  I added a textured finish to the image, and punched up the saturation and contrast a bit, since the shot was a little washed out by the bright overhead sun of the afternoon.  I like the contemplative angle of the face of the sculpture with the mountain and saguaro in the background:

Looking forward to getting back in the digital darkroom this week, and hoping that my work schedule doesn’t get so hectic that I can’t spend some quality time behind the camera.  Have a great week!

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