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:


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!!


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!


More South Mountain Sunset – It Keeps Getting Better

I’m still processing the sunset pictures that I took last weekend at South Mountain in Phoenix.  I love how these HDR images are turning out, even with my limited photo-processing skills and basic software.  Here’s my favorite from tonight’s digital darkroom session:

I uploaded this shot and four others to the South Mountain Sunset set on my Flickr site. Be sure to drop by there and see the entire group of images, all done in HDR using Photomatix and Paintshop Pro.  I still have more shots to process, and then it will be time to start planning my next shoot.  We had our first dust storm of the monsoon season this past week, and it would be really cool if I could capture one of those monsters from the top of South Mountain as it moves across the Valley.  Not very likely, but it would be quite interesting.  Regardless, we do get some brilliant sunsets and sunrises this time of the year as there is so much dust and ozone in the air….not great for breathing but sure makes some great photos!


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! 🙂


The Zen of the Bare Branch

Winter is almost over here in Arizona, at least below the Mogollon Rim.  All around us, plants are in bloom and pollen is in the air.  Trees are beginning to leaf out, and soon they will be green and the ground will be brown and parched–the way nature intended here in the desert.

But before all the trees become covered with their canopy of green, let me pay homage to the simple beauty of the bare branch.  When we were visiting Montezuma Castle two weeks ago, I was struck by the beauty of the stark white sycamore and ash trees against the azure blue sky, as seen in this single exposure processed in Paintshop Pro X3:

The white branches blended so beautifully with the chalky white limestone cliffs where the Native Americans built their cliff dwellings.  The trunks of the sycamore trees have the most gorgeous bark–it looks like a jigsaw puzzle of various shades of olive, tan, beige, pistachio, khaki, especially when processed as an HDR image from three bracketed exposures:

When we drove into Sedona later that afternoon, I spent a lot of time shooting pictures of the red rocks aglow in the light of the setting sun.  But as the sun was just about to slip below the horizon, I turned to face it and captured this shot of the bare branches of the oak trees:

It was such a lovely, peaceful silhouette that I did very little processing of the raw file.

Nature can be beautiful even when dormant and while hibernating.  It reminds us that we all need time to rest and recuperate so that we can bloom afresh and anew in the spring.

Happy Easter, everyone!


Sedona Red Rocks at Late Afternoon

I’m finally getting back to the digital darkroom after taking a break for about a week.  The weekend before last was pretty intense, traveling between Phoenix, Sedona, Camp Verde and Arcosanti, and I had (have!) a ton of photos to process.  However, I also had a house that was in dire need of a good cleaning, so I spent this past weekend being a domestic goddess instead of spending time on my photography…not my first choice, but a necessary one.

So, now I’m back to processing more of the photos that I took that weekend, and tonight I’m working on the ones that I took on Highway 179 heading toward Sedona.  If you have never had the pleasure of taking this drive, especially in the late afternoon as the sun is low in the sky, you have no idea what you’re missing.  It is truly one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth, and I feel so fortunate to live within two hours driving distance from it.

Our first stop was at a deserted wooden bridge that spans Dry Beaver Creek.  Ordinarily this stream is just a trickle, at most, but with all the winter rains we’ve had, as well as the beginning of the snow melt, the stream was flowing higher than we had ever seen it.

Dry Beaver Creek, Sedona, AZ

From there, we stopped at every one of the scenic pullouts on the way to Sedona.  The trick to getting good shots of the red rocks is to be in the right place at the right time of day.  In the late afternoon, the sun setting in the west (to the left side of the highway) brings the red rocks in the east (on the right) to a gorgeous, jaw-dropping red glow, especially when there are dark thunderclouds in the distance.  There were no thunderclouds on this beautiful spring day, but the effect was magnificent regardless.

Red Rocks at Sundown

There’s just something about the juxtaposition of the green pine and juniper against the red rocks, and the rocks against the blue sky that makes you accept without question the existence of a Higher Power.  Standing at the base of the red cliffs, you can almost sense the spirits of those who lived and died here for thousands of years past.  It’s a place where you can truly get in touch with Mother Earth just by standing or sitting quietly and letting your senses absorb your surroundings.  To me, it’s a sacred place, even if it is overrun by tourists like myself. Ah, well…

Courthouse Rock, Sedona, AZ

I’ve started uploading this series of photos to Flickr.  They are available in the set named “Sedona – March 2010“.  So far, I’m working on the ones that I shot in bracketed series of three, and I’ve processed them as HDR’s using Photomatix.  I’m using the Tone Compression option instead of the Detail Enhancement option, because I think it produces a more realistic, less cartoonish result for landscapes.  So far I’ve not done any further processing on the HDR’s outside of Photomatix, they seem to suit my fancy as they are.

I’m hoping that before the end of the week, I’ll have all the photos done from last weekend, because I have a three-day weekend coming up and it’s time to do some shooting!


Thunderbird Sunset Revisited

I took a break yesterday from the camera and the computer in order to spend time getting new tires on my car, and then watching the final day of the Olympics.  Today I was a little late leaving the office, and the skies were overcast this evening, so I didn’t get a chance to shoot anything new.

However, I still had a lot of shots from last Saturday evening to play with, so I’ve spent some time this evening experimenting with different processing techniques in Photomatix.  I basically selected a bracketed series and then processed the same series multiple times in Photomatix using Detail Enhancement, Exposure Fusion, and Tone Compression separately to compare the results.  I’ve found that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to producing a pleasing image.

This first shot was taken just before the sun went behind the big cloud bank that was drifting in from the west ahead of the storm front that came in this past weekend.  (The sun was off to the left of this shot.) On this particular 3-shot series, I used Exposure Fusion, and I love the way it produced almost a painterly effect in the clouds:

The shot below was taken just after the sun went behind the cloud bank.  I kept hoping for the real distinct “God Rays” to appear, but it didn’t happen.  I still thought that the light was dramatic enough, however, to make a halfway decent photo.  For this one, I processed the three RAW files into an HDR using Detail Enhancement.  I then upped the contrast slightly and also sharpened it a little in Paintshop Pro, and here’s the result:

I tried this series using the Exposure Fusion method as well, but I wound up with a lot more noise, which I’m sure was partially due to starting out with JPG’s instead of RAW files.

Both of these shots can be seen in all their glory in large size on my Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/suzannehight/.

While I was up on the hilltop in the stiff breeze taking these shots, I was getting very irritated at the way my camera strap kept catching the breeze, making the camera move ever so slightly on the tripod.  I really wanted to take the strap off the camera, but it’s a pain to try to unthread the strap connectors through the little slots on the camera body, and an even worse pain to try and put them back on after the shooting was over.  So I got on the Internet last night and ordered a new strap with quick-release buckles (Tamrac N46 in Red Flame….ooooohhh!).  The ends of the straps connect to the camera body, but the rest of the strap can be quickly released and removed from the strap-ends, leaving the camera on the tripod without a strap whipping around in the wind.  My new purchase shipped out today, so I should have it by this weekend!!


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!


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