Bike Night on Veterans Day at Westgate

I got a tweet from my Westgate feed late this afternoon advertising Bike Night…tonight.  Wish they would give us a little more advance notice about these things, but that’s another subject.  Bike Night is a monthly family-friendly gathering of local motorcycle enthusiasts at the Westgate entertainment complex in Glendale.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to get a little practice shooting handheld shots under fairly low lighting conditions.

Since today is also Veterans Day, the gathering had quite a patriotic theme to it.  They had a live band, several speakers from the military and first responders, and a flag from Ground Zero on display.  There was the playing of the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful”, and of course, Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud To Be An American”.   There was a mini-parade of motorcycles carrying flags through the crowd which drew a big response from everyone as well.

Click on the images below to view LARGE on black:

Bike Night on Veterans Day 001

We wandered around through the crowd and the parked motorcycles and I took about fifty shots. I had the camera set to Monochrome and RAW+Fine, so I got a black-and-white JPG and a raw file with all the color information. Sometimes I just like the black-and-white shots better, especially since I was shooting at a fairly high ISO (around 2000 most of the time), with a wide open aperture. I really need to start saving up my money for a fast lens.

Bike Night on Veterans Day 002

These shots are SOOC (straight out of the camera) JPG’s. Honestly, I’m happy with these just the way they are. However, I’m going to be spending some time playing around with the entire set from tonight’s shoot over the weekend. I got some really nice close-up shots of the bikes with the colorful reflection of the lights that really need the color processing to do them justice. But I wanted to throw these out there just to give you an idea of what the evening was like.

Bike Night on Veterans Day 003

Wow, it’s almost 10:00PM already! Guess I’d better close up the darkroom before I’m tempted to start working on these shots!


Happy Halloween – The Spooky Tree

Happy Halloween, everyone! I’m still playing around with Topaz Adjust, and I pulled out this old JPG file from last March.  This picture was taken in Sedona, Arizona, just as the sun was setting behind to trees that were lined up almost perfectly in front of the sunset.  I really liked the silhouette it created against the dusky sky.

I opened this shot in Topaz Adjust and played around with the different presets, just to get an idea of what effects they would have on the image.  When I clicked on the “Dark – Night” preset, I knew I had found my perfect Halloween shot. Now it looks more like moonlight than sunset!  Here’s the Spooky Tree, a la Topaz Adjust–click on the photo to view it large on black (as it should be!):

Be safe everyone, and enjoy this beginning of the fall/winter holiday season!

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?


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”:


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!


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.


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.


Uninspired and wishing for Spring

I took my camera to the office with me today, where it sat under my desk all day.  I had a couple of things to do at lunchtime so my first possible opportunity to do some shooting came after work in the short hour before the sun set.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything on my route home that would be worth rushing to.

I did drive by a couple of places just to check out the lighting and the access possibilities.  The first is the Nishkam Seva Sikh temple, that’s built on the side of the Hedgpeth Hills in north Glendale.  It’s a beautiful building with nine gold-leaf covered domes, and the setting sun really lights them up.  The building is even beautiful after sunset as the lights come on, leaving a unique silhouette against the blue light of dusk.  I definitely plan to visit this site soon, but I want to make sure I have permission to shoot there, so I’ll probably contact them ahead of time.

Then I drove over to ASU West on Thunderbird and 47th Avenue.  I saw some architecture there that I believe would make some interesting shots, so I’ll be going back there as well.  One issue at this location is parking…I don’t want to wind up with a ticket for parking illegally on campus, and I don’t want to have to feed the meter in the visitor’s parking spaces.  I’ll probably just park in the shopping center across the street and walk across.

So, I didn’t do any actual shooting today, but at least I got some scouting done and I think it will pay off this weekend.  At least on the weekend I can go out in my jeans and tennis shoes, rather than my work clothes!  I just can’t wait until the days start getting longer so there’s more shooting time in the mornings and evenings.  And I can’t wait to see what the wildflower season looks like this year.

One cool thing to report–a couple of weeks ago someone asked why I wasn’t shooting my night shots at ISO 100.  I checked my camera and the lowest ISO setting I saw was ISO 200, so I was a little disappointed.  However, I also saw some other settings below ISO 200 that were marked Lo0.3, Lo0.7, and Lo1.  I checked the manual and found that these are the equivalent to ISO 160, ISO 125, and ISO 100.  So, YAY!!! (And why couldn’t they just mark them with ISO settings??)

Finally, I’m going to check out a new tripod this weekend.  It’s the Sunpak Pro 523PX with the pistol-grip ball head, and Best Buy is carrying it for $199.99.  It’s a 64” carbon-fiber tripod with a bubble level and lots of other cool features.  There’s only one Best Buy store in the area that has it in stock, so I’ll have to go to Surprise to actually see it, but I don’t want to order it sight-unseen.  The price is right and the reviews on it have been good, so we’ll see.

Didn’t really feel like doing much in the way of processing tonight, so I just fooled around with a landscape shot that I took last Sunday.  Here’s a view of the San Francisco Peaks as seen from Camp Verde, with the red rocks of Sedona in the distance as well.  It’s not an outstanding image, but I certainly enjoyed getting to see the snow, even if it was miles away.

San Francisco Peaks as seen from Camp Verde


Glendale at Night – HDR Processing Marathon

I had great fun tonight processing the photos that I took last night in downtown Glendale (see my post from yesterday).  I had sixteen sets of three bracketed shots to work with, and I processed them all. Once again I used Photomatix to create the HDR image, and then did some post-processing in Paintshop Pro.  Tonight I did a little more experimentation during the processing in Photomatix, and I actually wound up using the Tone Compression tab more often than the Detail Enhancement tab.  The photos I was processing had a great deal of contrast, and the Tone Compression option seemed to produce a more pleasing result.

Here’s an example of the difference between the two processes.  This first HDR was produced using the Tone Compression option:

Bitz-ee Mama's - Tone Compression HDR

The photo has a great late-night diner feel to it with the roof fading into the night sky. The “Open” sign is clearly visible in the window, and the lights on the building provide some nice areas of contrast and interest.

Now here is an HDR produced from the same three photos, but this time I used the Detail Enhancement option:

Bitz-ee Mama's - Detail Enhancement

This shot kept all the detail of the trees, even the green one behind the building (keep in mind this was shot at about 9:00 PM so it was dark back there).  I’m not sure which of the shots I like best, but they’re certainly different.

Another first for tonight’s processing was that I got some experience in using layers in Paintshop Pro to do some burning and dodging on one of my HDR’s.  I shot a street scene, and during the third bracket shot (the over-exposure), a car drove by and I got the typical red and white trail of lights, which was fine.  However, it also created some glare on the backs of some of the vehicles parked on the side of the street.  When the HDR processed, this glare was badly burned out in areas, and no matter what I did with the sliders in Photomatix, I could not fix it.  Here’s the shot with the bad area highlighted:

HDR with burnout

So I decided to try my hand at masking.  I opened up the best of the three shots, which was the one at normal exposure, and then I layered the HDR image on top of it.  Then I used my Eraser tool to “erase” the burned out area and allow the clean image to show through.  I wound up totally removing the light trail since part of it was burned out–I couldn’t just leave part of it and erase the rest.  The result was not perfect by any means, but it did look a heck of a lot better, especially when viewed as a normal web image at 600X400:

HDR masked

So now, it’s after midnight, and I’m in the process of uploading my shots to Flickr, and for some reason it’s taking forever.  Probably because I’m ready to call it a night and go to bed!


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!