Wildflowers, Hiking and a Macro Filter on Good Friday

We’ve had a short reprieve from the imminent arrival of high 80’s and low 90’s–today’s high was in the mid-70’s, so it was a perfect day for an urban desert hike, especially since I had the day off.  I elected to hike a route that I knew would have some traffic, because I was hiking alone and didn’t want to be out in the boonies by myself in case I had an emergency.  Never know when you’re going to twist an ankle or a knee.

I went to Thunderbird Conservation Area in north Glendale (59th Avenue, north of Deer Valley Road).  My first stop was in a little parking area on the east side of 59th where they have built some wildlife viewing blinds that look out over a small lake–however, there wasn’t any wildlife stirring out there this morning, so I got back in my car and drove to the main trailhead parking lot.  My intention was to hike back to the east and approach the lake from the north where there are three other viewing blinds, and hopefully get some good shots of birds and wildflowers along the way.

I started hiking up the H1 trail, headed toward the pedestrian overpass, but came across some wildflowers pretty quickly and I stopped to get some closeups with the macro filter.  While I as in the process of shooting, a woman approached me to see what I was shooting, and then she changed my plans.  She told me that if I took the H3 trail to the west that there was a “huge” saguaro next to the trail where a nesting owl could be seen.  Well, that sounded pretty good to me, so I headed west on the H3 trail.  I’ve hiked this trail before and knew that it got pretty steep in places, but I knew I was physically capable of hiking the entire thing if I decided to.

I found the saguaro, but saw no sign of the owl.  Just my luck.  However, I did get a lot of shots of the wildflowers that are growing in the park.  I used my 18-55 lens, and attached/removed my 4X macro filter as needed.  Here are a few of the macro shots that I captured:

The shot above was from a little patch of flowers on the side of the trail.  No, I don’t know what any of these plants are, but feel free to leave that information in the comments if you know.  I just liked the way these little flowers had bits of yellow and red accenting the light purple.

The shot below show what happens when the beetles get hungry!

There were tons of these little orange flowers growing along the trailside.  It was a little tough to focus on them with the macro because there was breeze that kept them moving, but I tried to use a fairly fast shutter speed to keep them as sharp as possible (although the narrow depth of field was an additional challenge).

And finally, the cactus are just starting to bloom.  I found a couple of specimens that had these beautiful blooms on them.  The barrel cactus are also just starting to bloom, but I didn’t find any flowers that were fully open.

All of these were shot as high-resolution JPG files.  I’m trying to work on the “Zen of letting go” when it comes to my photo files.  I got into the (bad) habit of shooting everything in both RAW (NEF) and high-resolution JPG because I was learning to do HDR’s.  However, I tend to take a lot of shots, and so my hard-drive space is rapidly being devoured by all these files.  I have a hard time deleting any of them–what if I might need them in the future and they’re not there??  Oh, the horror!!

Anyway, today I started my workflow by deleting all the NEF raw files, and only saved the JPG files.  Then, when I processed the JPG’s in Paintshop Pro, I didn’t save the original copy.  I just saved the processed version.  And you know what?  It really didn’t hurt that bad to let all those files go.  Now I just have to make time to go back to my previous folders and clean them out as well.

I wound up with 26 macro images that I posted to Flickr.  They are available in the set titled “Thunderbird Conservation Park in Spring“.  I hope you’ll stop by and check them out, the colors are beautiful.

I also have quite a few photos that I took without the macro filter, and I’ll be going through them later and possibly posting some.  Hope you all have a blessed weekend–get out there and enjoy life!!

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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!

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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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Gateway Trailhead – Postlogue

I completely forgot to wear a coat or jacket when I left the house for work this morning, and when I left the office this evening the temperatures were in the mid 50’s and it was cloudy and breezy, so I didn’t stop to take any photos on the way home.  Instead I decided to try and salvage some of the shots from Gateway Trailhead that didn’t work well in HDR.

This first photo is one of the shots that I wound up turning into a black-and-white in HDR (see yesterday’s post):

Gateway Trailhead 60 Non-HDR

I did some tweaking of the shot in Paintshop Pro, and while it doesn’t capture details in the highlights and shadows like an HDR photo does, I still like the way the sun rays show up on the arms of the cholla.  I like this single color shot better than the B&W HDR version.

This next shot is one of about nine consecutive exposures that I took from the same spot in the visitor’s center:

Gateway Trailhead 077 Non-HDR

This one is the under-exposed shot in the bracketed series (-2.0 EV), which produced some gorgeous color in the sky even before any processing in Paintshop Pro.  The “frame” was the interior of the building, and on all three bracketed shots it was completely in silouette…thus the extreme noise in the HDR version.  However, this single shot turned out quite nicely, I thought.

So, I think I’m done with Gateway Trailhead for awhile now.  If all goes according to plan, we’ll be heading to Out of Africa in Camp Verde on Sunday, where I hope to get some good shots of the “wildlife”.  But until then I’ll be on the lookout for spur-of-the-moment things to shoot, and I’ll be sure to remember to take my jacket with me when I head out the door!

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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!

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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.

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Reducing the gloom of a cloudy day

My photography muse led me on a small road trip today.  I was driving up Grand Avenue and saw a sign pointing to Lake Pleasant Regional Park, and I made a right turn and was on my way.  I’ve lived in Glendale for almost ten years now and had never been to Lake Pleasant, so I figured it was about time.  The skies were mostly cloudy but the sun was peeking through every so often, so I thought I’d take my chances that I might get some good shots of the lake.

Once I got past all the golf carts in Sun City and the huge new power lines that are being constructed to the north, the area became very scenic (relatively speaking).  With all the recent rains we’ve had, the desert is decidedly green with what are basically weeds growing up between the rocks.  It’s actually very pretty as far as desert scenery goes, and it’s so temporary that it’s pretty special.

By the time I got to the lake the cloud cover was pretty much complete, so there was no sparkle to the water.  I had all my gear in my backpack so I took a couple of short hikes, one from the parking lot at Pleasant Harbor and another from the Visitors Center in the park itself.  I had to pay $6 to get into each of those places, but I’m not going to let it spoil my day.  The hikes were very pleasant as the temperatures were in the mid-60’s and there weren’t many people on the trails.  I got a great view of the lake, although with the cloud cover and haze it wasn’t as fabulous as I had pictured it in my mind.  I still took almost a hundred shots, mainly because I was using my old manual-focus 75-300mm telephoto zoom, and I wanted to practice focusing manually.  I also used my trusty 18-55mm normal lens for several shots to try and get a wider view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.  As I reviewed each shot on the LCD screen, I wasn’t really happy with any of them as they all looked washed out and “blah” from the overcast.

Which brings me to Paintshop Photo Pro.  When I got home and transferred the photos to the computer, I started playing around with some of the adjustment settings, and was actually impressed with what the software is able to do with photos that look so uninteresting.  The main things I played with were color balance, hue & saturation, brightness, contrast, local tone mapping, fade correction, vibrancy, and sharpening.  Below are some before-and-after examples of some of the shots from today’s road trip.  They’ve all been reduced in size to 300X400, but you’ll get the point:

Ocotillo bloom - BEFORE

Ocotillo bloom - AFTER

Hiking trail - Before

Hiking trail - AFTER

Lake view - BEFORE

Lake View - AFTER

Sailboats - BEFORE

Sailboats - AFTER

Again these reduced-size versions don’t give an accurate rendering of how the processing turned out, but the full size versions are available on my Flickr page, so go check them out.  Let me know what you think of the before-and-after comparison, and any tips you may have for taking photos on gray days!

Digital Darkroom – Swans and a Sunset

Yes, I know I said that I wasn’t going to take any more photos this week and concentrate instead on improving my skills in the editing software, but nature took its course this evening.  As I was driving home from work toward the west, I could see the sun setting in the southwest, but there was an intensely dark cloud gathering in the northwest–the perfect formula for a dramatic sunset.  Since I just happened to have my camera kit with me, I started looking for a good spot to exit the freeway and setup for some photos.

It took me about fifteen minutes and a couple of “dry runs” before I found a little park/trailhead just off Cave Creek Road and the 101 Loop.  I parked my car and grabbed the camera and started shooting hand-held shots as the sky turned all kinds of shades of gold, yellow, orange and red as the sun set behind the hills.  And then behind me, a rainbow appeared in the dark clouds as it started to sprinkle rain.

I tried to do some hand-held bracketed shots, but I was starting to get a few raindrops on my lens, so I had to stop and wipe it dry.  Fortunately the sprinkles didn’t last long, and I was able to get my tripod out and get some decent bracketed shots using the cable release.  As with any sunset, it’s all in the timing, so I just shot as much as I could and hoped for the best.

So when I got home, I was really torn between working on the zoo pictures from last weekend, or processing some of the sunset pictures.  I started with the sunset shots, first of all because I wanted to see just what I had captured (I already know what I have from the zoo), and secondly because I wanted to see if I could get some decent HDR’s out of them.

I processed five HDR’s using Photomatix.  Two of them use the same series of shots, but I used detail enhancement on one and exposure fusion on the other (the latter turned out better!).  Here’s a sample of what I was able to capture:

I’ve uploaded the others to my photostream on Flickr if you’d care to take look.

So then it was time to get back to the zoo pictures and test out some of the new features of Paintshop Photo Pro X3.  For today I selected one of my favorite shots of the day, these two swans who seemed to be overseeing things at the lagoon.  I took this shot as the sun was starting to set, and I used auto exposure and my telephoto lens.  The original settings were ISO 200, F4.5, 1/60 second, 99mm, no flash.

I loved the composition of the shot, but it looked a little bland and washed out to me.  I loaded the RAW file into PSP (wasn’t able to do that in the older version), and did some tweaking with the color balance, luminescence, and some local tone mapping.  Here’s the result:

I like this so much better!  It captures the glow of the setting sun while still keeping the detail of the swan feathers, the puddle of water at their feet, and the thatched roof of the the sunshade in the background right.  It’s a warmer picture, which I think instills a feeling that the swans are lovingly watching over their flock (which may or may not be the case, but it sounds good, huh?).

Anyway, let me know what you think!  Feel free to subscribe to this blog and offer tips and suggestions as I learn more about using both my camera and the digital darkroom software!

Lunchtime at McDowell Ranch Trailhead

Cholla at McDowell Ranch

I took my camera to work today.  My plan was to go out at lunchtime to scout for shooting locations just east of our office, toward the McDowell Mountains.  I’ve noticed that when there is a colorful sunset in the west, these mountains glow a warm red color, and I wanted to be ready to capture the shot this evening after work.

About 10:30 this morning, my office laptop went on the fritz, so I handed it over to the helpdesk folks, which left me unable to work for about an hour.  Therefore, I jumped in the car and headed east on Bell Road to scout out my location for the evening shoot.  I found a trailhead where I could park and, as it turned out, there were absolutely no clouds in the sky and no one else around. I pulled out my camera and tripod and proceeded to snap a few shots.

I played around with shooting on the “A” (aperture-priority) setting, adjusting the F-stop to change the depth of field.  I also used the bracketing function to collect some photos to use in experimenting with high definition resolution dynamic range (HDR) processing in Paint Shop Pro.  I used a cholla, a saguaro, and a palo verde tree as my subjects…there’s slim pickin’s in the desert.  As luck would have it, there was a covey of quail that wandered in front of my car just as I walked back to the parking lot, but by the time I got my 70-200mm zoom mounted, they had wandered away and blended into the rocky background.

I went back to work and when 5:00 PM rolled around, I left the office and headed back to the trailhead, knowing that the sunset would be only about a half-hour away. I was hoping to get some dramatic shots of a colorful sky and red mountains, but again the sky was perfectly clear and there were no clouds to add contrast and interest.  There was only a lukewarm orange glow over the distant mountains, and there were distracting buildings in the foreground of every shot that I took.  My evening shots were definitely not up to my expectations.

So, as it turned out, my midday shots were the best, even in the harsh light of the desert.  I played with some of the bracketed exposures in Paint Shop Pro’s HDR process, but couldn’t really see any “wow” effects.  I’m probably not doing it right since I haven’t really followed a tutorial.  For now, I just wanted to see what the user interface was like.  I also played with some of the other images, adjusting color, saturation, hue, etc., just to acquaint myself with how the PSP controls work.  There’s a lot that can be done with the software.

Between the two excursions today, I became a little more comfortable with the controls on the camera, as well as getting it mounted on the tripod.  I have some questions about how to manage locking the focus when  you need to re-compose a picture where the subject is off center…maybe I’ll post that question to my user group after I research it a little more.

All in all, a fun day!

(Update: Thanks, Adam, for correcting me on the HDR acronym!  You know you’re going to be my mentor on HDR, right??)