Finance and Law

When we did our Light Rail Photo Crawl a couple of weekends ago, we stopped for lunch in downtown Phoenix.  It was a bright, cloudless noontime, which can create some harsh lighting conditions for photography.  But on the other hand, you get these brilliant blue skies that contrast so beautifully against the neutral-colored architecture.

I found this shot of the Wells Fargo building looming over the historic Maricopa County Courthouse building to be one of my favorites from the day’s collection.  The juxtaposition of the old and new architectural styles, as well as the deeper symbolism of the financial sector having such an influence over the justice system…well, that’s a topic for a different blog.

I’ll just stick to the photography:

Finance and Law
Single image shot with my Nikon D700, 28-300mm zoom lens @70mm, F/11, 1/500s, ISO 200

I’ve got a busy weekend of shooting ahead if all goes as planned. Tomorrow night I’m joining some other members of the AZ Photographers Group for a Happy Hour/Open Shoot at Vintage Lounge in Tempe, AZ. On Saturday morning, I’m planning to visit the annual quilt auction being held at the Glencroft Retirement Center, where some of the most beautiful handcrafted quilts are sold as a fund-raising activity. On Sunday evening, I’m doing another complimentary lifestyle portrait session with someone who kindly volunteered to let me practice on them.

I’m still trying to shoot as much as possible, and as many different subjects as possible, to develop my skills and discover my niche. Thank god I don’t have to pay for film processing!

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.

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Downtown Phoenix – Fire, Water, Peace and Justice

Tonight’s post is another group of HDR images from last Sunday’s photo walk around downtown Phoenix.  It’s quite a variety, so let’s get started.

This first image is from the front of the historic First Baptist Church on Monroe Street (the same building where I shot the bell tower that was featured in the previous post).  This is the front wall of the sanctuary that at one time held stained glass, but during the fire of 1992, it was destroyed.  I took this photo from about the fifth floor of a parking garage directly across the street, using a 75-200 zoom lens.  You can see right through the openings in the window, all the way to a billboard on a building across the street on the next block:

Downtown Phoenix 007

This next image is a fountain located on the plaza in front of Phoenix City Hall.  It was a pretty popular place on a warm autumn day, with several couples shooting snapshots of each other as they posed in front of the waterfall.  I had to shoot quickly while no one was around.  I think I got this one a little too dark when I processed it, so I may have to go back and try it again:

Downtown Phoenix 008

This next image is St. Mary’s Basilica, a beautiful structure that was built in 1881 and still celebrates Mass daily.  Anyone who has spent a little time in downtown has heard the bells of St. Mary’s as they chime on the hour:

Downtown Phoenix 010

And finally, this is an image of the Maricopa County Court House building, rendered in HDR.  It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places:

Downtown Phoenix 009

I don’t care how energy-efficient and high-tech our new office buildings and churches are, they just can’t compare with the beauty and dignity of these older structures.  Even after a fire, the shell of First Baptist Church still impresses with its intricate architectural details.  How many of our glass-and-steel buildings of today will still be impressive a hundred years from now, even without a fire?

Each of these images was created from a bracketed series of three photos (-2.0/0.0/+2.0) taken with my Nikon D5000. I used Photomatix Pro v3 to produce the HDR image, and then post-processed in Paintshop Pro X3 to tweak the brightness and contrast, and I used the Curves tool to modify the color balance slightly.

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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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”:

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!

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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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