Thursday, July 29, 2010

Who buys this stuff?

At the very top of each field, there is equipment that would be labeled “to die for” by anyone who is used to the cheap stuff that most of us buy. What I mean is, you can buy a camera body for over 10 grand, you can buy a TV for over 10 grand, you can buy cars for almost a million … but nowhere is this carried to greater heights than in high end Audio. Analog still rules in high end Audio and I for one do know how nice it can sound with the right source material.

But I have to wonder who would buy a turntable that costs $57,000 USD and is installed in your house by the two original designers (included in price.) I mean, where does that kind of money come from … the people have to match such a beast with thousand dollar interconnects (that’s patch cords to most of us) and multi-thousand dollar speaker wire and of course a hundred grand of amplifiers, preamplifiers, phono preamplifiers and speakers …

It blows my mind and I must say that I want this stuff :-)

Subscribe to the absolute sound magazine at if you want to see reviews of this stuff regularly. The turntable I am talking about is stunning to look at and I am quite sure stunning to listen to …

Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II Record Player


Shoot the Moon and Jupiter – D300 with 70-300VR

Those who have read this blog over the years know that I have a particular fondness for shooting images of the moon and planets with telephoto lenses. Having sold off my magnificent 300mm F4 AFS and TC17e teleconverter, I really don’t have the equipment any more for such adventures. But that has not stopped me. The Saturn images I got last time I shot the night sky kind of blew my mind … but I thought I’d take a shot with the 70-300VR and see if the Kenko 2x teleconverter was compatible for moon shots.

I’m sorry to say that I really could not get clean images. I needed high ISO just to get a reasonable shutter speed after losing 2 full stops to the Kenko, so I eventually removed it and shot the moon with just the 70-300VR from tripod this time with VR off.

The result is very pleasing …


Click on that image to see it in full glory … it’s more or less a 100% crop. I processed it aggressively, which drew out some grain, but I still like it. Lots of detail for an almost full moon.

Then I turned my attention to Jupiter. I first shot it with the moon’s setting and got a really dark image. Then I reset to shoot at planet settings, which unfortunately blows out the planet’s disk, but does find the moons. When I got these into CS5, I had the rather brilliant idea of combining them into an HDR image that looks way better than anything I’ve ever shot before.

I confirmed the location of the moons with the Juplet and added that info into the image. I am always impressed to find the moons right where they are supposed to be :-) … and remember that this is a simple consumer lens that I paid $400 for used …


Shooting the night sky is extremely pleasurable … I need a small telescope :-)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crombie McNeill Photo Op – Smiths Falls Part 3 – Models at the Abandoned Water Treatment Plant

After the shoot with the knights in part 2, we broke for lunch in a nice spot in downtown Smith’s Falls. After that, we walked across the street to the old Justice Building and the models got into the mood with some playful posing. I have one image of the building itself with the models having a little fun.

DSC_3268_justice[1]That’s Erin in the back, Sandy sitting on the ground, Selina in the front right, and Bonnie between Erin and Selina (thanks for her name, Sandy.)

Image removed at the model’s request.

I processed most of this shoot to black & white. The surroundings and back lighting in a lot of it works best that way. Plus I like the look.

One final shot of Selina with Erin in the back. Also works really well in black and white.


And off we went to the water treatment plant. A real chore to find some of these places as Darth Vader on the Tom Tom had no idea :-) 

We were met by one of the city officials who was there to give us the tour and to ensure that no one fell into a dangerous treatment tank – they were all still in operation you see. My guess is that they are not quite ready to fund the inevitable cleanup when all the equipment gets shut off … but who knows. Maybe it feels good to have a backup facility available.

Anyway, this is one twisted building. Lots of narrow stairs … several floors that are cpnnected by narrow hallways that twist and turn … dank basement … the whole nine yards. It would make a great movie set.

We had about a dozen photographers and four models with us. You’ve already seen a couple of shots of the models in part 1 of this series. Those were shot with the Fuji F80EXR. Frankly, I was not enamored of the light in this location. It was extremely challenging and I was not in the mood to trek around with a light stand. Of course, I really wish I had, because I only netted a few images with which I am pleased enough to publish.

We started in the basement with Crombie dividing the building into zones and suggesting that we spend only about 1/3 of our time in each of the three main shooting zones. Crombie also mentioned that a few more models would meet us there, and you will see a couple of shots of them later on. Here is Crombie instructing the group with Sandy standing by.


I caught another shot of Selina as the girls were preparing to ascend the stairs to pose up by a huge window …


There was a balcony / catwalk around the basement which is where we all started. We had the girls working up there and I got two shots I liked out of that scene …

DSC_3299_girls[1] DSC_3318_girls[1]

You can see that I trotted Topaz Adjust 4 out for that last one. It just worked better with the edgier contrasts. I won’t tell you where, but the liquify brush was involved in that shot in several places. A subtle, but very important tool to put the finishing touches on an ensemble like this. (And yes, I know this one is really flawed … Erin’s left hand should be in frame, not out … sigh.)

I stopped for a moment on my way upstairs to shoot the water controls … mildly interesting shot I think.



And I spent the rest of the time upstairs in two shooting zones. One great big room with windows all around, and one smaller room with a small window and an interesting chair.

First the big room. A new model, on only her second shoot, showed up and I shot her near a big window. Really nice light here. I have a vague recollection of her name being Barbara. Again, I hope someone corrects me if I blew it.

I shot several of her with glasses on, but I really did not like those shots. Once the glasses came off, things improved.


This one really appeals to me. I liquified a bump from her nose, something that is necessary to make shots look like magazine covers (I am obsessed with that look to be honest.)


I will also admit to using a simple vignette trick to really focus the image on her face. I am *not* a fan of vignetting by darkening edges. It rarely looks anything but fake in my opinion … kind of “look at me, I’m a pro.”

Rather, this one uses a Guassian blur on the outside of an oval selection with a wide feather … works a treat. Looks very Hollywood 50’s to me …

Next, I shot Bonnie and John. They posed several times near one of the windows with a nice background. This was the shot I liked.


The next shot is my only shot of  Kristyn (spelling may not be correct), who showed up for a while.


I shot Erin and her friend with the F80EXR (already shown in part 1) and with the D700 here.


I moved around a bit then and ended up in the smaller room where we were shooting Bonnie and Erin. Bonnie was back lit and Erin was side lit. The back lit shot was a rare opportunity to stay in color, the side lit shot needed black and white and some edgy processing to make it interesting. Erin was also lit with a gold reflector. In both of these following shots I was forced to rebalance certain assets as they were leaning one way or the other and that does not look right on film unless adjusted.

DSC_3389_model[1] DSC_3400_erin[1]


Image removed at the model’s request.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get any others in this series that were sufficiently different to warrant processing. I shot two more series of Selina after that. The window, here …


I often go high key with Selina’s skin, as it really sets off her eyes and mouth. But here I preferred the edgier contrast look with strong tones in the skin and indeed everywhere.

Next we went to the room with the chair and she rattled off some poses of which I chose two. This first shot ended up being interesting in two interpretations …

DSC_3447_selina[1]  DSC_3447_selina2[1]

I prefer the second.

Finally, a straight on shot that went to mid tones for me …


Heavy on the eyes and mouth. Maybe too much, but again, the painted look of Hollywood …

I switched to the D300 for the last few shots because the Tamron was on it. At least, I think that’s why :-)

The following shot is a back lit scene that worked only in high key … I’ve already shown the F80EXR version of it, but I will repeat that one here and follow it with the D300 RAW shot that I processed for a similar look. I removed distractions though and much prefer the new shot.



I also improved the angle of her hand and head with the liquify brush. Sorry for cheating, but the result was worth it.

My final shot was one of Brandt and Sandy. Kind of a kidnapping or attack scenario I suppose … he was wearing black feathered wings, but I did not like any of the shots I got of him displaying those while hanging from the ceiling etc. This one worked though.


One last thing … when I was sitting in the car and waiting for the others to join me way back at the beginning of the day, I was fooling around with the D700 and captured this rather colorful shot of the rain drops as the others started milling out front …


So that ends the Smith’s Falls work shop for me. A fun day. I was not at my best by far, but I still came way with some shots I like from each of the two main shoots.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Progression – Maybe you should buy the best right up front …

There is a well-known issue that probably occurs in every field … beginners don’t really know what they want, they don’t really know the field, and they don’t really know what they don’t really know. The more aggressive ones actually argue with you when they clearly don’t know sh*t from Shinola … in the end, of course, no one listens to advice anyway :-)

I know that I went through a long progression to get to the equipment I am using right now … the wonderful D300 and D700 with a few nice lenses, but nothing in Nikon’s professional lineup (which would have cost me about 6 grand) …

I started with the Fuji F11 and added the Nikon D70s with Sigma 18-200 after about 6 months. I added the Nikon 70-210 F4 lens from 1985 a while later, then the Sigma 105mm 2.8 Macro. I ended up adding another 10 lenses of various descriptions … mostly used … but I also got the Nikon 18-200VR after trying to resist for a long time. I added the Nikon D2Hs when I could not get my 300mm F4 AFS to play nicely with the TC17e and D70s. The extra current in the D2Hs battery solved the (known) problem for a while. Less than a year later I realized that the D2Hs was mostly a wedding cam (a darned good one too) and traded it for the D300. I took a bath. One of many along the way.

After shooting models 5 times in 2009 I held a fire sale for most of my equipment and acquired the D700 on the proceeds. This at least was revenue neutral. Along the way, I acquired the Canon G10 for concerts, the Panny ZS3 and Fuji F70EXR and F80EXR for the same and for general purpose shooting. The G10 was sold … I still have the other three.

So … the point … this hobby is expensive if you don’t shortcut the learning curve and buy well right up front. You also need patience to wait a couple or generations for the next upgrade. That depends of course on what you shoot. But patience is a virtue in photography.

Now … the real point :-)

I saw a link in the D1-D3 / D700 forum at DPReview to the following article. It documents a theoretical progression that can cost 10 grand for many people, when spending less than half of that would have been far cheaper and less painful. An interesting and somewhat amusing read …

Ronnie Gaubert Retires

Words cannot express my regret at the news that one of my favorite wildlife photographers has been forced to retire for health reasons. You may read his final post on DPReview here. This post contains 10 Egret images that are of the same exemplary quality as all of his work.

I have had a link to his fine gallery in my Notable Sites section since I started taking this blog more seriously, and I never plan to remove that link. His total body of work is some of the most inspirational that you will ever see.

You owe it to your self to go over to his gallery and be inspired.

Check out the Sleeping Bees … one of my all-time favorites ….

Shoot RAW with EXR Sensors like the F70EXR, F80EXR and the Upcoming F300EXR

Whoah … these cameras cannot shoot RAW. So what the heck am I talking about?

Well, what I am really doing here is using the term RAW in place of the rather long winded – best capture that you can accomplish. Here’s what I mean …

Why is it that a lot of people play with HDR? Well, the reason is that they want to squeeze in all the tones that they can. They want the mountains in the distance to look good while the foreground is not a silhouette … they want the foreground to look nice while the mountains are not blown out to pure white. They want 13 stops of data to be displayed in their images. No blocked shadows and no blown highlights.

So how does that work?

Well, with dSLRs you can shoot RAW while exposing for the highlights. Then you pull up the shadows as best you can and deal with the noise. Some images will look pretty good, others will have nasty color shifts where you pulled up the shadows. More advanced shooters will use a graduated neutral density filter to control this wide difference between the sky/mountains and the foreground. This is tricky, but it leads to much better exposures.

With small sensors that allow RAW, you do the same thing and now you *really* get nasty colors in the shadows. Small sensors just do not handle this very well, so you should start making multiple bracketed exposures and playing with HDR software to combine them. And again the GND filter is always an option.

So what do you do with jpeg?

Well, not much. You will either blow out the skies and mountains or you will block the foreground shadows … very little choice there. Unless you shoot the EXR sensor. Then you can get the DR raised through hardware means, which flattens the tone curve and captures a lot more of the tones than any other technology can in a compact. This is even better than shooting RAW in a compact, since the two exposures do not shift colors noticeably …

This is the root of my recommendations for shooting EXR sensors. Get the best capture that you can. It’s that simple. Now, once you have that capture, you can tweak it trivially in Picasa, or you can open it in ACR6 and transfer to CS5 to really go to town on it. Perhaps you let Topaz Adjust 4 take a swing. The point is that you have captured all the tones and you now have the freedom to process it for any look you like.

Had you set up the camera to try to process a more dramatic version using lower DR settings (e.g. 100 or 200) or high res mode or (heaven forbid) the Astia or Velvia film settings, you will have bruised the pixels in some way or other. I see this all the time … blown highlights, blocked shadows, overall harsh presentation, lots of artifacts and edge destruction … it just sucks. And there is simply nothing you can do with such an image to improve it. You either like it or you toss it.

This was all brought home to me today (July 26) when Thom Hogan posted a commentary called Software Week. It’s on his front page today but will migrate to his 2010 archives in a few days. Look for it in either place.

Here is the relevant excerpt … it says it all.

But within that progression is hope. Software keeps getting better. After years of prodding to do better, the Adobe raw converter profiles are now in the realm of good for Nikon DSLRs, and I get regular emails from the team working on them asking if it's better. Yes, it is. Much. It can be even better ;~).

One of the things I've noticed in revisiting some older images is that I'm getting better final product from them today. Some of that is my own knowledge, which has obviously progressed over the years. But some of it is that the software tools have gotten better. It's almost as if we can go back into the darkroom and run our film through a different chemical set. It's a strong reason to shoot raw (or at least raw+JPEG).

This is one of the reasons why I say that the act of photographing is "the capture of optimal data." If you get the data capture right, as software gets better you're going to find that there's more in your pixels than you thought. But this is where we start: optimal data capture. If you goof up on that--and I did on this shot--you're going to have a ton of problems down the line.

So for those who want to be able to make better images as their skills improve or as software improves, I suggest that you consider getting the best captures that you can. With EXR sensors in compacts, Fuji does not give us RAW … but that does not mean that we must bruise our pixels. We just set the softest tones, the most neutral colors, and expose for the highlights … and then let time take care of improving our output.

Classical Gas

One of my favorite songs. My friend Tony linked to the stunning finger-picked version by Tommy Emannuel on his Facebook wall …

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Crombie McNeill Photo Op – Smiths Falls Part 2 – The Knights

In part 1, I showed you the images I shot on that day in Smith’s Falls with the Fuji F80EXR. In this post (part 2 of 3) I will go over the rest of the shoot with what I call the swordsmen or the knights, the latter being shorter to type :-)

As mentioned in the last post on this topic, we drove from the meeting spot to a large park where the knights like to gather on weekends to enjoy camaraderie and to relive some of these historical warrior periods. Because we had a pack of photographers there, they changed outfits several times, from Vikings to full-fledged Knights in Armor. The equipment itself was interesting, and considering how difficult yet rewarding it can be to shoot something as reflective as they were wearing, I was looking forward to it.

I shot a few with the D300 with the Tamron 28-75 2.8 and the rest with the D700 and the 70-300VR, which I much preferred. The flaw, of course, with that lens is its speed. And since we were in the woods a bit and were shooting on a really dreary day, I was at 3200 ISO pretty much all day long, which made the processing a bit more of a chore.

Note: I like shooting with the 70-300VR because I find it more consistently sharp, but I figured out that the Tamron and the D300 don;t get along as well as the Tamron and the D700 do. I adjusted the Tamron in the AF fine tune menu of the D300 and it seems very sharp now. I'll know after the next shoot.

Note that I never got names for any of these people, so I will do my best to avoid awkward writing. Be warned, though, as it will probably gat a little ugly. :-)

One shot before we get to it … the water tower in Smith’s Falls proclaims them the chocolate capital of Ontario … however the Hershey factory is closed now. Sad …

DSC_3290_chocolate_capital[1]The following images are all D300 images until I say otherwise.

Mike is extremely photogenic. He simply looks the part. You should imagine him preparing in the early morning for a battle later in the day. If you wonder how I got this rustic look, it is from Topaz Adjust 4. A mixture of HDR and Dragan style processing.

Remember to click on any image to see the larger version.



A little later in the day …


The following is a shot of the tip of a sword, fading out as we get closer to knight holding it … this effect can easily be overused, so I am only including one such image in this set.


When we arrived, this fellow (Adam) has a scar on his cheek. It was made of the kind of makeup that is used by professional actors. It looked alright as scar tissue, but Crombie asked him to remove it. This is shot after that point.


This fellow (still no name, sorry) has some really antique pipes and horns … useful stuff for this sort of gathering.


That ends the D300 images. The rest are all from the D700.

Here is a shot of Adam before the scar same off.


And afterwards again. Some of these guys can look really mean. Works well in these costumes.


Here’s George, the group leader, with some serious hardware.


Ok, I lied. I have another one of those tip of the sword images with Mike, although this one is not as emphasized … sometimes the shot has tones that I deem to look better in black and white. Sometimes the colors just plain suck in the image (to me) …


Here we have George performing the requisite axe throw. Not easy to capture, this was one of the better ones.


A shot of one of the daughters (still no name, sorry) … she looks like a young princess. Here is the shot as a soft portrait. It is followed by a shot more in the period style I adopted for this shoot.

DSC_3092_princess[1] DSC_3092_princess2[1]

Although that processing can be tough on skin, I still think I prefer the latter look.

Swordplay is always interesting … every once in a while you get a composition that you really like. In this one, Mike crowds the bottom of the frame, but is otherwise pleasing to me.


I caught a good angle on George with an impending strike …


Rhella, the princess’s mother, waits patiently …


Here she is in a group while her husband smokes the pipe … this creates a look that I associate with the period because of the likely prevalence of wood smoke on cold days like this.


Here they stand together.


A young fellow (still no name, sorry) was dressed in garb that looked vaguely Roman to me … hence I dubbed him the centurion.



Here’s George dressed in what looks like Scottish garb to me. I won’t pretend any expertise, just going by instincts when I look at these.


And the princess freezes along with the rest of us.


Adam avoiding a strike …


I asked the centurion to pose with his sword to try for yet another of those tip shots … this came out ok …


The chain mail is on and the battle draws hear. It’s heavy stuff and they gave us a lot of time and effort, so kudos to Mike and the rest for that.


But wait … a fair maiden (Joanne) walks into view and poses for a few images. A high key interpretation followed by a period interpretation.

DSC_3151_highkey[1] DSC_3151_xx[1]

Mike makes a few test swings with the helmet on.


Helmet off to cool off (and because the photographers asked him to.)


And a few screams to psyche himself up. This is one of my favorite images of the day.


Would you mess with this?


Sword held high.


Quick peek over at Joanne, or would one call her “wench” in this outfit?


Again, the princess, looking a fair bit warmer from wearing the cloak for a while.


Detail shot of one of the shields.


A shot of the princess again, this done only as a soft portrait.


George is now dressed in chain mail himself.


Adam too.



Mike completes the trio.


The three knights together … left to right we have Mike, George and Adam.


One imagines the horn blowing for the start of battle …


A protective look behind the scenes …


And the final shot … battle is done and the equipment is shed …


We broke around lunch time and went downtown to grab a bite before driving to the abandoned water treatment plant to shoot the models. That will follow in part 3.