Wednesday, August 27, 2008

TuFuse Me? (easy HDR :-)

Earlier this year, a photo buddy of mine (Jeff Kohn) introduced me to TuFuse. It's a program that combines multiple exposures (from a high dynamic range, HDR, scene) into one image. TuFuse is shareware.

The basic interface of the program takes you back to the old days of DOS :-) To run it in Windows, you have to create a batch file that establishes the path to your files, calls up the program (with optional switches that adjust the processing options), and tells the program which image files to combine. It's fairly easy and straightforward once you've done a run.

TuFuse will accept 16-bit TIF files and produce a 16-bit TIF as output.

I finally got around to seriously using TuFuse and tackled some of my older, difficult images. First up was a 5 exposure scene shot last year.

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The above scene was shot with 5 exposures (all in RAW). The result, using nominal processing settings in the program, was fantastic.

I still ended up layering (with masks) some content from the original files over the TuFuse output in PS (Photoshop). Using layers and masks is my normal approach to combining multiple expsoures, and it's tedious and labor intensive. I've tried manually combining the exposures for the above scene about 6 times in the last year and never got a result that completely satisfied me.

For comparison, here's my original attempt at exposure blending - manual blending only (i.e. using only layers and masks in PS):

no clicky

With a scene like this (one that has a very bright source of light in a localized region in the scene) simple layering with masks is quite difficult. Imagine concentric rings of differing exposure around the point light source (the sun). This is further complicated by the mountain in the upper right - this mountain is one of the darkest parts of the scene and renders nearly black in simple layering because of its close proximity to the sun in the scene.

The beauty of TuFuse is that it handles these areas of difficult exposure transition well. And then you can layer in bits of the original files into the "easy" areas of the scene (not that the TuFuse output is bad, but the original pixels just seem like a better choice to me where possible).

Since I was pleased with the TuFuse results, I also tried the sister scene to this shot, one that I'd not processed before:

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This was another 5 exposure blend done in TuFuse, and then supplimented by bits of the original files in PS (i.e. layering in, using masks, some of the original files over the TuFuse output in PS).


To reiterate what I've said before, shooting wide dynamic range scenes (i.e. scenes that contain a dynamic range greater than what the camera can capture in one shot) is quite difficult, and there are different approaches to doing it. Each approach has its pros and cons.

I prefer not to use graduated neutral density filters (the traditional method of shooting such scenes) because it's a one-size-fits-all approach that isn't always well suited. Take the above scenes for example. A graduated ND would have made the upper right-hand mountain very dark (much like my original efforts in blending the scene manually). There is no ND filter made that has a ND spot to handle scenes like this, and if such filter was made, the size and ND strength of the spot would have to be just right.

HDR programs (like Adobe HDR and PhotoMatix) have not worked well for me in the past. In fact, my first attempt at blending this scene was done in Adobe HDR. I spent long hours with it trying to fine-tune the processing and output with only poor results.

Manual blending (using layers and masks in PS), when done with care and skill, seems to produce superior results. The con is that it requires a lot of processing work. But I feel that the results are the best that can be achieved and also make the most and best use of digital post-processing (or, digital darkroom, if you like). Using TuFuse definitely helps to handle those tricky areas, like the upper right hand corner of the scenes above.

32 Week Ultrasound

The baby is 33 weeks along now as I write. Last week we had the final, scheduled ultrasound.

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The weight was estimated at 5 pounds! And it's still a boy :-) No change there. Due date is Oct. 14.

Tanya is exhausted and uncomfortable, but she's hanging in there. I'm real proud of her and thankful. She's a terrific mom.

Canon 50D and the Megapixel Race

Canon has just announced the new 50D. I suppose I'm a little bitter about this - I bought a 40D less than one year ago, not too long after its introduction. For once in my photo life, I wanted a new camera with fresh technology (as opposed to buying an older and/or used model like I usually do). Oh well, you can't keep up with technology unless you want to constantly spend money :-)

The 50D's 15 MP (megapixels) jumps the count up from the 40D's 10 MP. I thought the megapixel race was over or at least slowing down because manufacturers were finally coming to their senses. I guess not.

Canon claims that the 50D's microlenses occupy nearly 100% of each photosite (as opposed to microlenses of previous models which presumably didn't fill up each photosite). Because of this, the 50D's sensor should not suffer from increased noise levels at high ISOs (the typical result when you cram more MP's into a given sensor area thus making each photosite smaller). In fact, Canon claims the noise levels to be approximately 1.5 stops better than the 40D. Their claim is reflected in the ISO settings of the 50D - the highest (in expanded mode) is 12,800. The highest on the 40D is ISO 3200.

As my grandfather was famous for saying, "We'll see..."

Interestingly, if you take the 50D's pixel density and apply it to a full frame sensor, you get a 39 MP chip. Whoa...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Finding Your Photographic Style

For a long while I chewed on the notion of photographic style. I was not able to define it in my work. Yes, there was an apparent style, or rather, just a few basic similarities between each of my photos. But that didn't satisfy me as I thought style would be something much deeper and more meaningful.

Earlier this year, with a little help from a photo workshop, I figured it out. I decided to write a piece on it since the whole process was complicated and deeply emotional for me.

Click here to read the article.

I hope that by sharing my experiences I can inspire those of you searching for your style and meaning in your work. Maybe you’ve found your style but it seems somewhat superficial. Maybe you wish to move beyond just making pretty pictures and create work that is more meaningful to yourself and others.

Defining and knowing your style will help you connect better with your passion in your work, IMO. Knowing your style isn't necessary for creating meaningful work, but I think it helps. Good luck!

Death Valley, Feb. 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

High Island & Low-Light Panning

The Houston Audubon Society owns four bird sanctuaries at High Island, Texas. In March and April each year, the rookery in the Smith Oaks section is a hoppin' place. The nesting areas are cram-packed with Great White Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, and other shore birds. There are frequent squabbles for space and the noise is incredible.

The trails and viewing platforms near the rookery are equally packed. They are infested with photographers, birders, and thick clouds of mosquitos. Finding enough room to shoot is difficult enough, then you have to worry about getting elbowed or knocked in the head by someone's lens. There's always a bit of tension in the air when groups of photographers attempt to co-exist with groups of birders :-)

Anyway, I've made four trips there in the past two years to photograph the birds. I'm just now wrapping up processing my photos from this year.

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Canon 40D, 400mm f/5.6L
f/5.6, 1/250 sec., ISO 400

I've shot different types of bird scenes at High Island, but the ones I like best (and the ones I've strived to get) take a different approch from the normal shots that photographers usually capture here.

When the light gets dim and the nesting area falls into shadow, almost all photographers and birders leave. The mosquitos get thick and the alligators float like dreadnoughts in the waters below.

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Canon 40D, 400mm f/5.6L
f/5.6, 1/200 sec., ISO 400

I like to shoot in-flight shots in relatively low light (and slow shutter speeds). The subdued colors in the quiet light are quite nice. What I'm really after is getting a little wing blur to imply motion.

The resulting photos have a dream-like quality and offer a different view of High Island from the literal direct-light bird-book type photos usually taken here by others.

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Canon 40D, 400mm f/5.6L
f/5.6, 1/250 sec., ISO 400

Using the Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens is well suited for this type of shooting. The lens is relatively small and light, and it's easier to pan along with the birds when shooting.

The slower maximum aperture (f/5.6) is acceptible because it results in slower shutter speeds (required to get wing blur) and also a little more DOF. Shooting in-flight shots like this is hit-or-miss (mostly near-miss) and the added DOF helps to get the bird's head in acceptable focus even if the focus point is a little off.

In a typical bird-book type shot, the 400mm f/5.6 does not produce beautiful, completely blurred backgrounds like a 500 or 600m f/4 lens will. So, this style of shooting (low-light panning) helps to blur the background more due to motion.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

DIY Camera L-brackets

About two years ago, I figured out how to make a simple L-bracket that was compatible with the Arca-Swiss style quick release system. You can buy professionally made L-brackets that are extremely well made and very nice, but they're expensive (especially when you change camera bodies every year or so, therefore requiring a new L-bracket each time :-) ).

Since then, I've made two others. I've created an article detailing how they were made (download it here - PDF file).

I like doing stuff myself and working with my hands and tools. I buy things or pay for repairs only when I cannot do it myself. Believe me, there are many things in my house that have been fixed with duct tape, super glue, or clothes-hanger wire :-)

Now, if I could just figure out how to make a home-made ballhead... ;-)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lone Star Trail

Back in April of this year, a friend (James S.) and I hiked a portion of the Lone Star Trail in Sam Houston National Forest. We made a one-way 11.25 mile hike.

Before the hike, I decided to keep things as simple as possible and take only one camera body, one lens, and no tripod. We didn't have a lot of time for the hike which meant that I didn't have too much time for quality photography. Covering 11+ miles takes a while, especially when it's hot and humid. At least the trail was fairly level!

I took my versatile, beater lens - the Canon 28-105mm f/3.5 - 4.5 USM II. I've blogged about the merits of this lens before - it's a great all-purpose, lightweight, and relatively small lens that provides pretty good results (especially at f/8). I wish it was just a tad wider (24mm would be perfect) but I really like the zoom range, close focusing distance, and having just over 100mm at the long end.

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Canon 5D, 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM II
f/8, 28mm, 1/25 sec., ISO 800

James took me to a special spot to visit a mighty oak that spanned a creek. We spent some time exploring and photographing the old tree. At this point of our hike, I really wished that I'd brought my tripod.

This photo was taken hand-held with me squatting down and bracing the camera with my legs. I fired several bursts - a technique that's good for this situation. Usually, in a burst of 4 or 5 shots, the second, third, or fourth shot will be sharpest. (the act of pressing and the releasing the shutter button on the first and last shots often adds a little extra camera movement and blurring of the photo) It worked out fairly well, and I got a reasonably sharp image. I did have to shoot at ISO 800, but the 5D produces acceptable noise levels provided the image is well exposed. Shooting at f/8 was necessary to get the depth-of-field I wanted. I had brought a polarizer, but took it off for this shot to get the fastest shutter speed I could, and that was a compromise.

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Canon 5D, 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM II
f/8, 28mm, 1/25 sec., ISO 800

This shot was taken a little later in the hike, just after we crossed the East Fork of the San Jacinto River. I used the same technique as described above, except this shot was taken with me holding the camera atop my hiking stick. I usually take a 4-foot long wood dowel that serves as an impromptu monopod when needed.

I wished I could have used my polarizer (and also a lower ISO). The filter would have helped to cut the white glare off the surface of the leaves and really show the beautiful green glow that the forest canopy generates. Next time I'll definitely bring the tripod.

hike info
Double Lake Recreation Area and Big Creek Scenic Area are located just south of Coldspring, Texas inside the Sam Houston National Forest. I made a custom map (1 MB) of our route and plotted GPS waypoints. The GPS data was made before the hike using software, i.e. they're not real points taken in the field. However, during the hike, I found that those pre-plotted points were accurate.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Ghost Beach

I'm finally getting around to processing a load of photos I made earlier this year. These images are from the beach at High Island, Texas. They were taken about an hour after sunset the day after a full moon.

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camera/lens: Canon 5D, 17-40mm f/4L
settings: 25mm, f/8, 102 sec., ISO 200

Archetype The photo above shows a specific archetype. I won't tell you what it is, so leave a comment and tell me what you see, please! I showed this to my wife, and she didn't get it. She did, however, see a different archetype, and that was quite interesting because it was something I didn't see. That's why I really like showing my photos to others and hearing their views :-)

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camera/lens: Canon 5D, 70-200mm f/4L
settings: 154mm, f/8, 15 sec., ISO 400

I love night shooting. There's something magical and other-worldly about long exposures in the dark. The camera's sensor will keep collecting light and capture details not seen with the naked eye. The resulting photo contains things not seen au naturel.

Of course the negative aspect is that because our human eyes can't see as the camera does, we can't fully appreciate the fine details that show up in the resulting photos as we shoot them. Night shooting often involves a lot of guesswork, trial-and-error, and a lot of time.

Oh, one piece of advice about long exposures taken on a sandy beach: your tripod legs will sink into the wet sand! I took several other exposures (most of them very long, e.g. 3 to 20 min.) very close to the water line and also just into the surf. The photos were a little too blurred to be of any good.