It’s all about quality, not quantity

How is it possible that I took 244 photos at Out of Africa yesterday and came away with so few that I was really excited about?  After getting home so late last night and then having to go to work today, I’m just now getting around to reviewing yesterday’s shoot and doing a little editing.  Yes, I took 244 shots (that includes a few that I took at the rest stop on the way up to Camp Verde).  First of all, let me just say that I’m glad I had the new 8GB SD card (thanks, Andy, for the early Valentine’s Day gift!).  Secondly, I’ll just point out that my camera battery charge indicator never budged the entire day, while two other cameras in our group died from lack of juice.  So far I’m very pleased with the D5000’s power consumption.

Anyway, back to the photos.  There were several reasons why I came back with so many photos that weren’t acceptable to me:

  • Stupidity – Once again I forgot to check all the settings on the camera before I started out and I didn’t realize that I still had the auto-bracketing turned on.  I kept wondering why some of my shots looked so dark and some looked so bright…until my internal light bulb came on.  By then, I had missed some great shots in the Serengeti area of the park.
  • Chain-link fencing – I will give this park kudos for the little observation decks at many of the exhibits where you can get a decent shot of the animals without obstruction, but I couldn’t help wishing there were more of them.  Some of the exhibits did not have the decks at all, and on a brightly sunlit day like yesterday, the chain link is so shiny it’s hard to get a decent photo of the animals.
  • Little people – most adults will at least try to stay out of the way when they realize you’re aiming your camera at something, but kids have absolutely no sense of propriety when it comes to the photographer’s right-of-way.  They will run right in front of you and just stand there, waving their little arms in the air, jumping up and down, and making all kinds of noise while they do it.  Pardon me while I vent…

I did get some shots that I really liked, though, and I’ll post a few of them at a time as I go through them.  I’m editing them in Paintshop Pro, and I’m doing a little experimenting with different settings as I go, so I don’t want to rush the process.  Besides, I’m still extremely tired from lack of sleep, so I’m going to call it an early night tonight.

I’ve posted some new shots to Flickr, but here’s one of my favorites that I worked on tonight:

Sleepy Lioness

Visit my “Out of Africa” set on Flickr to see the others.

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Digital Darkroom – Zoo Shots

I’ve finally gotten a few hours to concentrate on editing the photos that I took at the Wildlife World Zoo last Saturday.  Since these are all single exposures (no bracketing), I skipped the whole “let’s-try-to-make-an-HDR-out-of-nothing” process, and decided to stick to the basics in Paintshop Photo Pro X3.

I found that the software does a fantastic job of providing options to the user, from the very basic “One Step Photo Fix” that could very quickly clean up a batch of snapshots from the family picnic, to a full gamut of sophisticated tools for adjusting the images down to the very fine details.  The user interface is intuitive and well-organized, and the software loads up much faster than the previous version did.  All in all, I’m very satisfied.

I edited twelve shots tonight and uploaded them to Flickr.  Here are just a couple that I especially liked (reduced in size):

I’m still trying to decide where and what I want to shoot this weekend.  I have a few ideas–the problem is that I want to do them all, and I know I can’t be everywhere at once.  I’ll wait until the weather forecast is more precise and then make my decision tomorrow.

I was checking online today for some local classes or workshops that might be interesting and helpful in learning all the in’s and out’s of exposure and focusing, and I found a workshop that is presented by Arizona Highways magazine that sounds like it would be perfect.  It’s a five-hour classroom course taught by one of the professional photogs for the magazine that covers all the basics of all those mysterious combinations of f-stop, ISO, shutter speed, and focus.  The workshop is in late March, so I’m pretty sure I’ll sign up for it.

Digital Darkroom – Swans and a Sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Darkroom – The Peacock

After spending the past two days taking hundreds of photos, I’m planning to spend my evenings this week in the digital darkroom (a.k.a. the Sony Vaio laptop).  I decided to pick a few of my favorite shots from our trip to the Wildlife World Zoo yesterday, and concentrate on one per evening.  I’ll try different effects on the photo and post them here to compare.  The first one I’ve chosen is this closeup of a peacock.  This one was shot with my Nikon D5000 using my VR 55-200mm F/4-5.6G zoom lens.  I had it set to Auto, and the exposure information was recorded as ISO 220, 165mm, 1/500s, F5.6.  Here’s the original version, unprocessed except for resizing:

This next version shows the same photo after a few adjustments in Paint Shop Pro.  I increased the contrast slightly, changed the color temperature a little toward the warmer side, and sharpened it up slightly.  I may have done a few other things, but those are the ones I remember.  Here are the results:

Since all my shots at the zoo were single, unbracketed exposures, I didn’t have any good candidates for the standard HDR process.  Therefore, I had to cheat a little bit and use Nikon’s ViewNX to manually create a series of over/under-exposures of the same photo.  I created four copies of the RAW file, at exposure increments of -2, -1, +1, and +2, respectively.  I then ran these through the HDR process in Photomatix.  For the first one, I used all five of the exposures (including the original one) and then tonemapped the result:

As you can see, there are some obvious differences between this shot and the two above.  To me, it looks more “fluorescent” (that’s the best word I can think of for it) than the original photo.  I kind of like it, but I thought it might be a little overdone, so I tried the HDR process again, but this time I only used three exposures, leaving out the -1 and +1 versions.  I left all the tonemapping settings the same for this one, and here’s the result:

I honestly can’t tell that much difference between the two HDR’s, at least at this size (400 X 600).  But there’s an obvious difference between the HDR and the non-HDR versions.

I honestly prefer the original, untouched version.  The feathers on the neck seem more defined, and the color is more true to what I remember.  The HDR versions are more colorful, but I don’t think they are as sharp as the original (although I do like the way the background is rendered in the HDR’s).

So what do you think?  Which one do you like best?  Feel free to leave a comment and let me know!

Wildlife World Zoo – Wait until feeding time!

Andy and I spent our Sunday afternoon at the Wildlife World Zoo in Litchfield Park, Arizona.  It’s a small zoo that just happens to have a new aquarium on the property, and since it’s close by, we thought we would see if we could get some good photos of the animals.

We got there shortly after 1:00 PM, and for the first hour or two, we were pretty disappointed.  Most of the animals we saw were in smaller enclosures with lots of chain link or mesh fencing, and with the sun glaring off the metal it was hard to even see, much less photograph the animals inside.  Most of them were in the shady, hidden parts of their enclosures away from the midday sun.  Even though it’s winter here, the temperatures were in the high 60’s to low 70’s, and it gets pretty warm if you’re not in the shade.

After a couple hours, we finally stopped in a little cafe to get some ice cream, a cold drink and just rest our feet for a little bit.  After we started out again, we found we were in the part of the zoo where the enclosures were more open.  The exhibits in this area were larger for the bigger animals like the zebra, rhinoceros and giraffes, but most of them were still shying away from the open part of the enclosures so they were still hard to photograph.  Up until about 4:00 PM, the best shots I could get were of the swans and ducks that people were feeding in the ponds.  We tried really hard to get some decent shots of the white tigers, for which the zoo is well known, but once again the chain link enclosures ruined the photos.  We finally went to the 4:00 PM show where the zoo personnel bring out some small animals and let them perform for the kids (and us adults).  By the time the show ended about 4:30, the sun was starting to set, and that’s when the animals started to come alive.

We walked back through parts of the zoo we had already seen, and this time the animals were up and active.  It was feeding time in the park, and so it was like someone had flipped the “on” switch.  It also helped that the sun was at a lower angle, so the light wasn’t as harsh.  We were able to get some fairly decent shots of some of the larger animals before the sun got too low.

About 5:00 PM, we decided we had better go through the aquarium since it closes at 6:00.  I had my tripod with me, but I wasn’t really in the mood to use it inside the aquarium, so I didn’t get a lot of good shots in the dim light from the fish tanks.  They had some very nice exhibits in there, though, and we got to pet the starfish and the stingrays, which was fun.

We left the zoo about 6:00 and stopped at The Auld Dubliner in Park West for some good Irish food on the way home.  And now it’s time to wrap up the weekend and get ready for the work week.  I’ve transferred all the photos from my camera to the computer and I’ll start going through them this week, but I already have one favorite.  This is a shot of the baby ocelot that’s in the nursery at the zoo.  It’s about three months old and was just adorable.  This shot was taken without flash, through glass.

Oh, I’m happy to report that my new camera bag worked out splendidly on this excursion.  I still want to get the straps to attach the tripod to the bottom of the bag so that we don’t have to hand-carry it.  All in all, it was a very good weekend, but I’m bushed!!