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!


South Mountain Sunset – HDR or not?

With the onset of the Arizona monsoon season, the clouds have finally returned, yielding some amazing sunsets ripe for the camera.  Last evening Andy and I drove up to Dobbins Overlook on South Mountain where we could set up the tripod for some bracketed shots as the sun set over downtown Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs.  Dobbins Overlook is a popular spot for photographers, families, students with their guitars, and those who just want to enjoy a warm summer evening’s light show.

I took 154 frames, most in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0.0/+2.0) as the sun went down.  I’m using a Nikon D5000 with the kit lens (Nikkor 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6G), mounted on my Sunpak tripod and using a cable release, shooting in aperture-priority mode.  For each, I captured both the raw NEF as well as a JPG file.  And I got a lot of great images, but now the quandry is–what is the best way to process them?  And is there really a “best” way?

For example, here’s the first shot of the evening.  This image is from the single frame JPG file at normal (0.0) exposure, processed in Paintshop Pro X3 where I played with Local Tone Mapping, Levels, sharpness:

Single frame from JPG

This next version is from the raw NEF file, also processed in Paintshop Pro X3:

Single image from NEF

In both these instances the foreground is pretty much darkened out.  I don’t mind because the foreground wasn’t really that interesting to me at this point–I was mostly interested in the colors of the sunset and the drama of the cloud formations.  Also, I liked the way the sun was reflecting off the small lake.

Now, this next image is the HDR version resulting from the combination of the three bracketed exposures.  I used Photomatix to combine the images, and then used Paintshop Pro X3 to do a little cleanup:

HDR image

This version definitely provided a little more detail in the foreground while keeping the drama of the cloud structures.  For the HDR processing, I used the Tone Compression option in Photomatix, rather than the Detail Enhancement option because, once again, the foreground detail wasn’t all that interesting to me.

Finally, here’s the HDR version processed in Phototmatix using the Detail Enhancement option and then post-processed in Paintshop Pro.  It definitely has the advantage of revealing all the detail in the foreground:

HDR using Details Enhancement

So, I’m really torn.  I’m not sure which of these images I’m happiest with, and would love some feedback from readers of this blog.  The hubby just voted for the last one! 🙂


Glendale AZ Jazz & Blues Festival – Free and Funky

This weekend Glendale is presenting their annual Jazz & Blues Festival in and around downtown’s Murphy Park.  It’s one of the best entertainment deals you’ll ever find.  There’s no charge for admission, and you can even bring your own food in.  There are two stages, one for blues and one for jazz.  Andy and I packed up our lawn chairs and the Nikon last evening and had a great time relaxing in front of the Jazz stage, listening to some great artists perform while doing some serious people-watching.

We arrived about 4:30PM, just as Dennis Rowland was wrapping up his set.  I had hoped to get there in time to see Dennis perform but just didn’t make it.  I did get a great shot of his T-shirt, though.

Dennis Rowland, Spirtual Gangster

The act that followed was probably our favorite of the evening, Dominic Amato.  He’s a great young jazz musician that’s local to the Valley, and he had a fantastic group of musicians backing him up:

Dominic Amato

The next act was Vicki McDermitt and her trio.  Vicki is a jazz vocalist who is local to the Valley, and she performed a set of jazz standards interspersed with her favorite quotes from jazz singers and entertainers.  My personal favorite from her set was “Grandma’s Hands”:

Vicki McDermitt

Vicki was followed by the Larry Coryell trio.  If I had ever heard of Larry Coryell, I don’t remember it, but I will not forget him and trio after last night’s performance.  This guy absolutely owns the jazz guitar.  His rendition of Ravel’s “Bolero” brought many in the crowd to their feet (not too shabby considering most were sitting on blankets and had had a few beers by that time).  I will definitely be looking for some of Larry’s work from my usual download sites:

Larry Coryell Trio

Of course, one of the best parts of festival-going is the people-watching.  From our vantage point in our lawn chairs, we had a great view of the stage, but between us and the stage was the sidewalk which was being kept clear as one of the main arteries for people to come and go.  Therefore, we got to see a lot of different people walk by.  I had about 30-35 degrees of free sight-line in front of me to shoot pictures, and so I used the opportunity to practice quickly focusing on a subject as they walked into my line of sight and getting the shot off before they passed behind the person blocking my view to the other side.  I came away with some “interesting” shots, at least in my mind.  And many of the people were kind enough to stop within my line of sight and do some impromptu dancing, which is always fun to watch:

We were at the festival until it ended about 10:30.  After the sun went down I didn’t take so many photos as I didn’t want to use flash, plus it was starting to get more crowded.  All of my shots were taken with the 55-200mm zoom lens at ISO 200, except for the last few of Vicki McDermitt and Larry Corywell for which I used the normal 18-55mm lens at a higher ISO for the after-dark stage lighting.  I shot everything in “fine” JPG (no RAW format), and I haven’t done any post-processing on them.

I’ve uploaded quite a few shots to Flickr in the set titled “Glendale Jazz Fest 2010“.  There are some great photos of other members of Dominic Amato’s band, and lots of shots of the fans.  I hope you’ll zip over there and take a look at them and let me know which ones you like (or hate!).  Here’s my personal favorite:

Now, that’s what it looks like when the music is great!!


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!!


Montezuma Castle Up Close and Personal

I finally got a chance to start processing some of the photos from this past weekend, and I started with the ones of Montezuma Castle.  For those who are unfamiliar with this National Monument (operated by the National Park Service), Montezuma Castle is a well-preserved cliff dwelling that was constructed by the Sanagua people around 700 A.D.  It was occupied until around 1425 A.D.  It’s a five-story, 20-room brick and mortar structure that housed around 50 people.  When European Americans discovered the site in the 1860s, they named it for the Aztec emperor of Mexico Montezuma II, due to mistaken beliefs that the emperor had been connected to its construction.

Me and Andy, with the help of a self-timer

I decided to do all my shots in bracketed series of three (-2.0 / 0 / +2.0).  Fortunately, the Park Service allows you to use a tripod, so it wasn’t at all difficult to setup for a nice series of shots from multiple angles.  I started out with my normal lens (18-55mm) to get some shots of the cliffside, but I quickly switched to my telephoto lens to get some close-ups of the details of the structure.

Shot with 200mm zoom

I’ve started processing the shots as HDR’s using Photomatix and Paintshop Pro X3.  I had already done one this past weekend (see my last post), and I’ve done four more tonight.  They are uploaded to my Flickr site in the set titled “Montezuma Castle“.  I’ll be adding more to the set later this week, but I’m satisfied with what I’ve seen so far.  I even have some decent shots from my old 125-300mm zoom (non-autofocus), so I’m anxious to get them all out there.

If you’ve never visited Montezuma Castle National Monument, I highly recommend it.  The entry fee is $5, and it’s easily accessible to people of all ages and physical conditions.  Right now the trees are mostly bare, but I’ve also been there during the summertime when the trees are in full leaf, and it makes a beautiful contrast of color against the white cliffs and the blue sky.  I do want to go back in the fall when the leaves are in their fall color!


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!


Tripod Nirvana

I am so excited!  I finally have a decent tripod!  I went to Best Buy after work this evening and purchased the Sunpak Pro 523PX 64″ model with the pistol grip ball head.  It has a lot of features that I really like, including:

  • Pistol grip ball head with trigger control (no more levers!)
  • Quick release plate with a built in screwdriver (no more using a coin to tighten and loosen the screw)
  • 360 degree rotating ball head (no more taking the camera off the tripod and repositioning the not-so-quick release plate to change from landscape to portrait mode)
  • 2 bubble levels
  • Adjustable lift n’ lock center column (with an extra shorter column for tabletop configuration)
  • Neoprene leg grips
  • Center column accessory hook
  • Carbon fiber leg sections
  • Rubber feet with retractable spikes

I love the pistol grip trigger control.  It makes it possible to reposition the camera and have it locked into place for the next shot with just a squeeze.  I can’t wait to take this thing out this weekend and give it a test run!

The only photography that I got to do today was totally by accident.  We had a baby shower for a co-worker in the office today, and the person who was supposed to be taking pictures ran out of memory in their point-and-shoot camera after only a couple of shots.  I happened to have my camera at the office with me, so I grabbed it and started shooting.  I had the telephoto lens already attached, so I went ahead and used it.  All the better to get shots of the action from the far end of the conference room table.  It also gave me some depth-of-field variety:

Since these were just snapshots, I only published them to my Facebook page, but you’re welcome to view them (click here).  The conference room had a ton of natural light, so I only needed the flash when taking pictures of people who had their backs to the windows.  I had the camera on Auto the whole time, and I was pretty pleased with the way the pictures came out.  I haven’t edited any of them, just published them as is (except for some resizing, of course).

I’m hoping to get some good shots this weekend.  They’re predicting a 60% chance of rain tomorrow and 30% on Sunday, so it could be dicey.  But I’m determined to find that window of opportunity so I can get my dose of Zen–I need it!!


Zen and the Nikon

I just purchased my first digital SLR camera, after years of using digital point-and-shoot models, and using 35mm SLR’s before that.  I’ve always loved photography, but when film cameras started dying out and digital camers started taking over, I really couldn’t afford a good DSLR.  Fortunately, the prices have continued to come down, and although I purchased what most pro’s consider to be an “entry-level” SLR, it has enough flexibility and manual control to freak me out a little.

I purchased the Nikon D5000 camera, which came with an 18-55mm f/3.5 – f/5.6 DX VR Nikkor lens.  I purchased it from Best Buy, and they were offering a package deal which also included a Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G IF-ED AF-S DX VR Zoom Lens and a bag.  I’ve always had good luck with Nikon cameras, so I was excited to find such a good deal on the package, especially since I love working with a telephoto lens.

I’ve started studying the user manual and checking out various websites and magazines dealing with digital photography, and…WOW!  So much has changed since the last time I used my Nikon 6006 film camera.  So much of the digital photography process is now done on the computer in some sort of photo-editing software, so you need to not only understand your camera, you must also understand your software.

Fortunately I already have Corel Paint Shop Pro, which is about the next-best-thing to Adobe Photoshop.  I spent a lot of time in PSP about ten years ago just playing with graphics, but now it’s much more geared toward photo editing.  The user interface has changed a lot since I used it heavily, so I need to get reacquainted with all the tools and palattes in the software.

I’m very excited about getting back into my photography hobby, but this time of the year isn’t the best to do that.  It’s dark when I leave for work, and it’s dark when I go home in the evening….well, almost dark.  I’ve seen some of the most beautiful sunsets on the way home, but there’s not enough time to get to a good shooting spot and get setup after I leave the office.  However, in another month or so that should change as the days get longer (and it gets hotter!).

I’ll be posting some of my favorite shots on here as I learn to use the camera, and I’ll be using this blog to keep track of my progress as I become so aquainted with my camera that I don’t have to stress over every shot….it will become ZEN!