Monday, June 29, 2009

Monticello Garden Pavillion

I'm still going through photos from the DC trip. This one was taken along Mulberry Row between the formal gardens and the slave dwellings at Monticello. I thought there was a photo here, but the more I look at it the more I wish I would have gotten lower on this shot, almost eye level with the fence leading line. I can see a shot composed of fence, pavillion, hill, and sky -- and it being much better than what's shown here. But why didn't I see it then? Frustrating.
Black and white conversion was done with Nik Silver Efex; sloppy edge added with Kevin Kubota's Sloppy Edges Pack; bad vantage point and the curse of being tall and not thinking to shoot low to high provided by yours truly.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Missing Photo

If you're a member of the Bay Area Photo Club, I hope you saw Larry J. Patrick's great body of work presentation Tuesday about impromptu portraits at festivals that he and I did during the fall and winter of 2008. He's been posting some of those images on his blog recently, and at the meeting he presented about 25 portraits from the Texas Renaissance Festival and Dickens on the Strand. In these images, we would take turns as photographer and lighting person --approaching a subject, asking to take their photo, then positioning them and lighting them with a hotshoe flash shot through a small softbox connected wirelessly with Alien Bees triggers. It's not studio light, but it's far better than on-camera TTL flash - very mobile and very flexible, and suited our needs very well. Anyway, in his presentation he mentioned that we photographed this very attractive young girl in gold, and in his infinite wisdom, Mr. Patrick decided to move her into a very brightly lit background. There was something about the reflections off the gold sequins and the blown highlights in the background that we thought pretty much destroyed the shot. Both he and I agreed that we never did get a usable image there, and regreted it considering we had such an attractive model. So, I went back into my files and discovered maybe I did have a workable image. The photo above is that "missing photo" -- the one we thought was lost and gone forever - missing from his body of work presentation and now shown here for the first time. I feel like I've raised the Titanic or something. Seriously though, as it turned out maybe it wasn't as bad as we both thought. Despite the lost highlights and hard light, I did have a good, sharp exposure on the face -- so armed with the recovery slider in Camera Raw, some vignetting, and a textured edge to further knock down the bright background, here's my addition to Mr. Patrick's body of work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


My friend Robert visited Houston this past weekend, and we made a trip to the San Jacinto Monument in LaPorte. Whenever I'm there, especially inside the monument at the base, I get these vivid memories of going there as a child on a class field trip. Must be something about those cold, dark granite floors that bring all those memories rushing back. Thirty-five years ago, before video games, cell phones, and iPods, an end-of-year spring trip was a big deal to a pre-teen. I remember a sack lunch of bologna and mustard sandwiches with a frozen soda that you never were quite sure whether or not it would be fully thawed when it came time to drink. When I opened the raw file for the image above, I used the luminence and saturation sliders to boost the blue in the sky, but then in Photoshop as I thought about my memories I took this image in an entirely different direction. I added a texture and a yellow color overlay. But, sadly, there's no Photoshop filter called: "add memories of cold granite floor." Too bad.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Houston Zoo #2

This photo of a flamingo was taken at the Houston Zoo's Photo Day a couple of weeks ago. After about 20 minutes of taking quite a few terrible backlit flamingo shots, I finally wised up and changed positions. The only problem was shooting with better light also meant shooting over an approximately 6-foot-tall fence. Luckily, I was able to lay my lens on top of one of the posts and, standing on my tip toes, make some better-lit images -- 1/500 sec at f/6.3, 400mm. In postprocessing I brought in some fill light for the background; also applied some Lucis Art filtration to bring up some shadow detail in the background as well.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Before and After

The other day Cindi Barker posted a before and after photo of a young girl that she photographed, and there was a comment by Barry Armer about how interesting it was for people to see both images -- so here's mine. This photo was taken in March at Popular Photography's Digital Days model shoot in Houston. I was never really happy with the lighting of the original raw file (on the left) and thought it was underexposed to the point of being unusable. So, I challenged myself to make a printable image out of it. My retouched version is on the right. One major change was to shift her blouse color, which I thought was too distracting, from yellow to brown. I also retouched and brightened the face, and then added an emulsion edge.
Barry's right -- it is interesting to really compare the two; and for the photographer/retoucher there is a certain amount of satisfaction about rescuing an otherwise flawed image.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Houston Zoo #1

A couple of weeks ago, the Houston Zoo hosted their second Photography Day -- where local photographers could get into the zoo a couple of hours before it opened to the public. I missed their first Photo Day in February, so I decided to go to this one, and honestly I had mixed emotions about photographing in a zoo. I've always found it more satisfying photographically to shoot in the wild, where you take what nature provides. But I have to admit it was nice to have such great access to the animals. The photo above was taken through plexiglass, 1/500 sec at f/5 at 400mm on a tripod. I was just about ready to give up on this lion laying in the sun, when he suddenly raised his head, and I fired off about 6 shots. This image is pretty much straight out of camera -- just some sharpening and vignetting were added.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #7

So, after about three hours at Pier 19, my final set of shots turned out to be exactly what I thought they'd be -- egrets feeding as the sun disappeared on the horizon. The only problem was that I had spent so much time with the skimmers and shooting the golden light on the Voyager that I really started shooting the backlit stuff way too late. My shutter speeds ranged from 1/40 of a second down to 1/2 a second, so any movement by the bird created a blurry image. And if there's one thing you need for a good silhouette shot it's a sharp subject. The shot above was about the best of the bunch. I shot a similar image to this about a year ago at this very spot, only in that photo the egret was standing on a rock looking left. I ended up using it in the Featherfest photo contest this year, and it won second place in the first week of the contest.
So, this ends my series at Pier 19. There are other photos in the group that may get worked on one day, and there were plenty of skimmer shots that got deleted at the scene or later on the computer. As comfortable as you can be with a shooting environment, like I feel I am here, sometimes things can surprise you. It's incredible how quickly light changes, and how limited a window you have to make an image before it's gone. Even as hard as you may be trying to work a scene, it's like a voice in your head tells you at a certain point --"the light's gone, the magic is over." And it's nice when that happens just before the mosquitoes start to swarm.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #6

After spending the prime minutes of golden light shooting the back of Voyager, I finally switched lenses to a longer lens and set up on a tripod. I knew the egrets there like to hang out and fish and stand on the rocks and debris in the water, and the view to the west is perfect for backlighting them. After setting up, I found shutter speeds slow enough that any little movement in the bird created softness. And when you have the stark silhouette of a bird against the water, you really need to have a sharp bird. Changing gears, I began playing with composition. Amazingly, the black skimmers were still around. So I prefocused on a spot and tried to catch them as they crossed my view. I knew there was no way I could track and stop them with this extremely low light, so I tried something different. I got a few pieces of birds in the frame, but mostly I got images like the one above -- a blurry wake from a skimmer gone past.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #5

I was lucky that the skimmers were flying around as much as they were that night. Although I got very few great shots, they are so much fun watching and trying to photograph that I probably spent too much time on them. My plan was to switch lenses as the sun got low on the horizon and start shooting egrets and pelicans backlit. But as I was walking down the boardwalk I saw the scene above - the shrimp boat Voyager from Matagorda. The low, soft light was perfect, so with the 70-200 lens still on I walked out onto one of the slips across from the Voyager and took about 20 images of the boat. I liked the reflections and the golden light on the back of the boat. And like the skimmers, I probably spent too much time here. Maybe it was one of those things that looked better in person than it translated to in an image.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #4

Here's a sequence of photos that shows just how fast the skimmers are. I looked deep into the metadata at these images and there was exactly .23 seconds in between these frames. The top one shows a black skimmer cutting through the water; the bottom one shows the head bent completely backwards with a caught fish in his mouth. I'm posting these slightly larger, so you can click on the images to see what a difference .23 seconds makes. This is what makes photography fun for me -- stopping the action (some would even say abstracting the image) so you can pick out fleeting moments that in real time aren't noticeable. I wish I could post a third image in this series, but unfortunately in this location the lighting conditions vary greatly and the next couple of frames were in shadows. There was also a pelican in the background, so the images were pretty unusable -- but in those you can see the skimmer flying off with fish in mouth. So, I post these today not as if they are great nature shots, but because they show an interesting moment in the life of a skimmer. And for me, the photographer (who didn't realize I had even captured this until review on the computer), it's what keeps me coming back for more.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #3

Mediocre egret shots and dolphins -- not exactly what I had planned to shoot this night. But, oh well, you take what you can get a lot of times in nature photography. Black skimmers can sneak up on you though. They look incredibly similar to a laughing gull when flying - white bellies, very similar wing flaps, and dark crowns. It's not until they drop down to the water and feed that you realize that you're seeing one of the truly beautiful things in nature. And as I pondered leaving early, a family of three black skimmers began making passes along the boardwalk. I guess you can equate it to a fisherman enjoying a good fight with a hard-to-land fish, but black skimmers do it for me. There are not many things I've seen through a viewfinder in nature that are as graceful and elegant as black skimmers feeding. They're wonderful to watch, and even harder to track, focus on, and capture. So here's the money shot -- a black skimmer about an inch from touching water. Panning shot, 1/1250 sec at f/2.8. Their eyes are solid black on a black crown, so 95% of the time you get no detail in the eye; but by luck of the low light I got a heavy catch light here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #2

OK, so it was gonna be a slow night. I was really preparing to pack it in and call it an early night. The lighting, the birds -- somehow they just weren't cooperating. However, there's always alot of ship traffic where I normally shoot from -- it's near shrimp boats that are docked at Pier 19. And from that boardwalk, you can get a good view across the ship channel to Pelican Island. Drilling rigs and boats are docked there to be repaired. On this particular night, there were lots of tug boats and pilot boats, even an odd-shaped, square-hulled boat that looked like some kind of research ship that was leaving port. So, as the sun slowly lowered and the hour reached 6:30 as I looked across the channel, I saw this dolphin playing in the wake of the tug boat Harris II. It's nice to see unbirdled nature like this. It's spontaneous, and even better since I was shooting birds in flight I had my camera set to shutter priority at 1/1250 of a second. Sometimes luck is better than skill when spontaneous happens.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Night at Pier 19 #1

A couple of weeks ago, I had a free evening so I decided to stay in Galveston after work and shoot some birds or whatever else that caught my eye. Sometimes it's kinda fun to go out without any real plans and just shoot what strikes you. After trying to shoot more people over the last year, I realized that I hadn't shot any birds all spring -- no nesting at High Island, no spring migration, no Featherfest. So in the back of my mind I did have birds in the plans, but the posts over the next several days will follow chronologically what I shot that night over about a 3-hour period. I had nice success shooting backlit birds in this location about a year ago, so that was also in my thoughts. So, here's one of the first images of the evening -- your standard egret image with reflection -- shot with a 70-200 VR lens handheld at 200mm, 1/1500 sec at f/3.2. If this was as good as it was gonna get that night ... well, there's always next time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Here's another image from Montpelier. This one was taken after the tour from the back of the house. You can really see the workmanship that went into the restoration here. The portico with the railing on the lefthand side is actually a walk-out porch on the tour. This photo was a 3-frame HDR, shot handheld, and merged together with Photomatix.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Air Force Memorial #2

At the top is a wide shot of the memorial -- from the hillside as you walk up -- not a great shot, but you can get a better idea of the memorial as a whole. Next time I shoot there, I will get there early with morning light and bring a wide angle lens. While it looks pretty spacious here, when you're at the base of the memorial, it's tough to get wide enough to get the whole thing in one frame. Below that is a view from the Air Force Memorial -- in the foreground at lower left you can see a small portion of Arlington Cemetery, and in the center is the Washington Monument with the National Mall along the horizon. This was the only shot I took from that vantage point. I textured and edged it with some newly found images.