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Category: Photo tips

Travel Tip

Travel Tip: Next time you’re hiking on a barren island of volcanic rock (in this case the dormant Nea Kameni of Santorini, Greece) and you want a souvenir piece of lava to take home (even though there are signs insisting “don’t remove the rocks”) you might not want to drop it in the same pocket with your sunglasses.


Number one reason to use a filter on your lens.

This is why you might want to have a filter on your lens! One day, at the end of a beginners workshop, one of the students had a Tamron 70-200 f2.8 zoom that was making some scary rattling noises. I gently pulled off the lens cap to reveal a shattered filter. The lens had taken a hard hit on its front edge. I carefully unscrewed the filter and the slightly bent mounting ring, pulled out the shards of glass and blew off the remaining glass powder. All was well. If the filter hadn’t been there would have likely been serious damage to the lens itself.


Patience pays off at Volcanoes National Park.

I was in Hawaii a few weeks ago on vacation. Well, a vacation with 40 pounds of photo gear. . . .  My wife and I were blown away by Volcanoes National Park. We were told to come back around 6:30 to see the glow from the lava pit. By 7:00 it was still not much to look at and by about  7:30 it was so dark that I had to manually focus on the glow. The clouds and stars were barely visible to the eye. I tried some long exposures and got a nice surprise. This is a 2 minute exposure which turned out pretty nicely.


Just a little retouching

I had a chance to do another large banner project for the YMCA. This time it’s for a 13x17ft rear-lit sign to hang on the corner of their newly remodeled building in downtown Dallas. The last banner job was going to be viewed from close enough that I decided to shoot with the 24.5 megapixel Nikon D3X. This new banner would be viewed from the street so I shot it with my 12 megapixel D300.

We shot several setups, knowing that one of the shots would be used on the building and the others would be part of a billboard and bus campaign. This photo of a group of Y members was the one chosen for the big sign. There were several changes and repairs to be made.

Quite often on discussion groups you’ll hear people get snarky and say something like “I would have just shot it right in the first place instead of spending so much time in Photoshop”. The people who take that attitude may not have shot in a live, slightly chaotic location with a dozen people waiting to have their picture taken. With paid models you can sometimes take a little longer getting things “right”, but you don’t often have that luxury. Also, what’s “right” may not have even been decided yet!

We shot this group of people near a railing, in front of a glass wall with the basketball courts in the background.


Once the shot was selected it was time to clean it up a bit: (from L to R)
– Stretch the top part of the frame to match the aspect ratio of the sign.
– Repair the woman’s eye which was hidden under her bangs. I found another eye from a different shot.
– We didn’t have a good shot of the second man looking at the camera so decided to replace him with a woman from another setup.
– Replace the logo on the man’s shirt with a Y logo and change the shirt color.
– Remove logo from the red jacket.
– Remove logo from shorts.

The idea was to have some good background action happening on the basketball court. I had the actors step out of the frame and I shot a couple dozen frames of court action at 1/8 sec to get some blur. Keeping the camera locked off made it a little easier to composite the background elements:


– The woman with the blue shorts was used in place of the man from the original image. I had to first clear out a space for her by cloning over the edges of the man to give her some extra background. Then the adjacent actors were masked and she was placed behind them. Shadows were painted in to match the lighting from the left. The client also asked to add some color to her shirt.
– The basketball court was placed into the main shot, along with background action from three shots.
– The last inset shows a photographer friend of mine with the Lastolite Easy Balance card for white balance. (Wiley is his name and you can see his work here.)
– My client sent over the background graphic as a Illustrator file and I dropped it in as a Smart Object and needed to do some masking around the actor’s head
– Then there was skin retouching, some clothing repairs, local and overall color balance, hair trimming, sharpening. . . the usual ;-)
– The file was sized up to final print size at 50dpi, which is the native resolution of the XL Jet printer.

Here is the final composited shot after about 3 1/2 hours of work:



one big light

My son plays tuba in a rock band that’s been practicing at the studio for the last few weeks. I thought it might be fun to shoot some pictures at one of their rehearsals. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time setting up lights and wondered what I could do to get something interesting. They were playing in front of the cyc, but the white floor is in need of a coat of paint and I didn’t want to spend time cleaning that up in Photoshop.

A raw shot from the balcony with just the overhead fluorescents on:



I turned on a 2K (2,000 watt) tungsten light, widened the beam and just blew out the cyc wall behind them. That gave me some interesting contrast and solved the dirty floor problem since now the light is skipping off the surface of the floor instead of showing all the dirt. I did a little toning, tinting and negative clarity in Lightroom and go something we all liked.


Playing with Fire : Works

Like most people, I love fireworks. And like all of you, I love taking pictures. So at least once a year I find myself with camera in hand, trying to capture some interesting photos of explosions in the sky. Last Saturday night my wife and I met some other couples near Lakewood County Club. I’ve been attending this little fireworks show for over a decade. There’s a street that bisects the golf course and we stake out a space early and then sit on our blanket while the mortars go off right over our heads.

I tried shooting handheld, with the camera in my lap, so I could still watch the display and enjoy my surroundings. I started out by putting the lens on manual focus and setting it on infinity so I didn’t have the problem of the camera seeking an object in a dark night sky. I played with exposure until I settled on about 1sec at f8 at 200-400 ISO. I jiggled and spun the camera during the explosions, which gave me some interesting patterns.Where it got really neat was purposefully defocusing, holding the zoom barrel in my left hand and twisting the camera body on axis, zooming in during the explosions. The result is the almost aquatic looking images toward the end (my favorites). Even defocused, at the widest end of the zoom the light trails are relatively sharp. As I zoomed in they softened. The only processing I’ve done to these images is changes in exposure, fill light and black level in Light Room to bring out some of the trails hidden in the darkness – a very good example of why shooting RAW can really help.


Panoramas at the Dallas Camera Club

I was invited to speak to the Dallas Camera Club last night. I was really amazed to see almost 60 people attending the meeting. The DCC has been around for 75 years and has a very active calendar of meetings, competitions and field trips.They are a great group.

I spent about an hour talking about panoramic images, discussing why you’d want to shoot them, how to make them and then looking at the amazing software available to automatically stitch several images together into a seamless photo. I’ve been using AutoPano Pro for a few years and just love it. There are dozens of programs out there, many of them free or inexpensive. Panorama Tools has been around for a long time and has some great front ends like PT GUI. If you have Photoshop CS4, you already own a great stitching program, but I still far prefer AutoPano for its flexibility and ability to detect and extract panos from a folder of images.

I think panoramas are one of the coolest and most satisfying techniques to come out of digital photography. The images are wide format, more closely matching our natural field of view. You can create big impressive prints with even a low resolution pocket camera since the resolution of each photo is added together into the stitched final image. They look beautiful hanging on a wall and are easy to print at home. Watching the software assemble the images is really amazing.

At the meeting I showed some panoramic sequences from recent travels. I also did a live demo, shooting hand held with a little Pentax pocket camera and dragging the images into the AutoPano software.

These are the raw shots:


This is the result of the panorama stitch, processed using the “Spherical Projection” setting. This has the best relationship of sizes of the people in the room, but the most pronounced curvature of tables, which were actually in straight, parallel rows. This is what the shot would look like if taken with a scanning film camera like the Widelux or Horizon:


The same panorama, using the “Planar Projection” setting. The tables look better, but the people at the edges are stretched, as they would be using a traditional super wide angle lens:


This is the same Planar projection as above, but taken into Photoshop for some warping. I did a Select All, used Transform:Warp, and pulled in the sides. There is less of a stretched feel, but you start to loose the wide format of the panorama:



I highly recommend shooting some panoramas. With AutoPano, and others, you can shoot multi-row panos, and even shoot any group of images covering a subject, without them having to be aligned, level – or even all horizontal or all vertical, as long as there is overlap in the images the software will find the pano in there.

Really big prints

I’ve had an Epson 7600 for a few years and always thought of it as a big machine with an appetite for ink and a producer of impressive big prints. Up to 24″ wide by any length. Boy, have I had to recalibrate that thinking! I just got through shooting a job for some interior banners that will hang at the newly remodeled downtown Dallas YMCA. They are being printed on an HP Scitex XL Jet which prints up to 5 meters wide (196″). The images will be full bleed and the size is 9ft x 18ft. I shot using a rented Nikon D3x. I’ve written about that experience here. The resolution of the D3x is roughly 4000×6000 pixels. The long dimension of the banners of 18ft, or 216 inches. Dividing the resolution (6000 pixels) by the printed dimension (216 inches) will give us the maximum pixels per inch that I would get on the print: 6000/216=28. If I crop the image I would have fewer pixels. Is 28 ppi (pixels per inch) enough? Absolutely, because of viewing distance.

When I do my own exhibition prints, I have found that anything over about 150ppi is seldom seen in the print itself. If the image is a technical or highly detailed shot involving product with sharp edges, a super high-res multi image panorama or overlayed vector art or text, then going to 200 or 250 ppi can make a difference. Those images are hung on a wall and viewed from a few feet away – unless you’re like me and always lean in, tip your head, and look to see what kind of detail there is in the print. Its sometimes an unkind thing to do, but I’m always interested in printing technique and it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the image as art.

These large banners will hang overhead and the minimum viewing distance from a 6′ person’s eyeballs to the bottom of the banner will be 7ft, assuming they are looking straight up. To the center of the banner would be about 11ft. More realistically, the viewing distance as people move around the room will be well over 15ft. If 150ppi is great quality at a viewing distance of 3 feet, then what happens at about 15ft? Subjectively, I can tell you that they look great. I’ve seen the prints at Color Place, who is doing the printing, and was pleased with how crisp they look from a few feet away. The numbers support this. There is a simple, linear relationship here. A viewing distance of 3ft is 1/5th of a viewing distance of 15ft. Take our target high quality image of 150ppi and divide by 5 and you get, yup, 30ppi. There is a good article on this topic here.

The ink droplets from the HP Scitex XL Jet printer that Color Place uses are pretty big. Well, big in the ink jet world. They are specified at 80 picoliters. By comparison, my Epson 7600 has a minimum drop size of 4 picoliters. That’s billionths of a liter, which is small! What that means is that the image from the XL Jet, when viewed closely, has quite a bit of dithering, a kind of noise pattern that results from the low printing resolution. That is actually a very good thing in terms of percieved sharpness. At a distance, that noise actually sharpens the image. Try it yourself. Print a photo, then add noise to it in your image editor. Put them side by side and step back. Often the noisier image will appear sharper.

I visited Color Place when they were printing and finishing the banners. The printer is really big, and so is the head assembly. I complain about buying 220ml cartridges for my printer. These guys buy ink by the gallon. When the print technician saw me photographing the bottles on the floor he said “Oh, that’s just junk ink. We can’t use that. Here’s the new stuff” and then showed me the cabinet with the new gallon jugs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how inexpensive this kind of banner printing has gotten. It costs me about $2/square foot in ink and paper to print on my Epson printer. You can get banners made for around $3 to $4 per sq. ft. You aren’t going to hang them in a gallery, but it is a blast seeing images this size.

Laptop tripod tray

I wanted to be able to use my laptop tethered while shooting. I looked into a couple of commercial laptop trays, but they were kind of overkill. I used an extra Bogen Magic Arm and some plywood to make a usable platform. I cut a piece of 1/2″ plywood slightly smaller than the footprint of the Vaio laptop and inserted a 1/4″-20 threaded insert into the center, dressed it with some black gaffer’s tape, and made a strap out of velcro. It gave me a stable, adjustable platform for the laptop.

Warning, don’t try clamping something like this to a carbon fiber tripod. This is a stout, aluminum Gitzo which can take the compression from the SuperClamp at the end of the Magic Arm.