Research

General Thoughts

Sentinel Dome Sunset — Yosemite National Park, CA © jj raia

Whenever it’s decided to take a trip or vacation, it’s probably a good idea to do a little research into the area to enhance the possibility that it will live up to your expectations and be an enjoyable experience with lasting memories. For a photo trip, those memories are in the form of photographs, and this research can be crucial in coming home with some good images that were in you mind before ever reaching your destination. These preparations can increase the odds of being at the right location at the right time to capture what it is you wanted in going there in the first place.

With all the information available on the internet, it’s amazing how detailed your research can be. With personal devices to use with the Global Positioning Satellites and GPS coordinates readily available on the web, you can almost find the tripod marks of photos you’ve seen if the coordinates are shared by the photographer; and in so many instances, they are!! By combining Google Maps and the satellite views, you can visually see hiking trails and specific details of the surroundings of your intended destination.

As an example, by doing a Google search of “pictures of the Egg Factory, Bisti Badlands, NM”, literally hundreds of photos will appear. By selecting a particular photo, a link is available to go directly to the web site containing the photo where you may get specific information about it’s location (GPS coordinates), how long the hike is to get there, and maybe even whether the photo was taken at sunrise or sunset.

You can even do the same type of search in The Photographer’s Ephemeris web site. Type in “The Egg Factory” and it may actually pinpoint the spot and give you the direction in degrees of the rise and set of the sun and moon for the specific day you intend to be there, even if it’s six months in advance!!

I just spent quite a bit of time doing this kind of photographic detective work for an upcoming trip through California. A big part of this trip is to explore the “Lost Coast”, one of the last remaining wild and remote areas in the continental US coastline. I found quite a few off-road possibilities to get to these off the beaten track locations looking at the satellite views; discovered an abandoned lighthouse a 1-mile hike from the end of one of these roads; and found a location with a beautiful view of Mt. Shasta, the hike to get to the spot, that it may be doable for someone my age, and that there is a small camping area right there at the end of the gravel road to the trailhead. You could probably find pictures of each campsite as well if you cared to.

So, after accumulating 26 pages of notes, information, pictures, maps, Walmart, Motel6 and other locations, and specific direction to many of the sights to visits, along with 10 separate full page maps and armed with AAA maps and two off-road guide books, I’ll leave shortly for a three-week trip through some of the finest landscapes a single state can offer. I hope to see the giant sequoias, tall redwoods and ancient bristlecone pines; the dramatic coastline of rocky coves, tide pools, sea stacks and wind-swept bluffs along with the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. I’m hoping to have time to visit Crater Lake in Oregon before heading back down through the mountain ranges of inland California, before ending up traveling through some desert terrain and sand dunes of Death Valley and the Mojave. The plan for the final evening is to photograph the wild architecture of the Walt Disney Auditorium in downtown LA, another item I found through the internet, before the huge task of repacking all the gear for the flight home.

If you’d like to come along on this adventure, just follow the entries here as the blog morphs into a journal of each days occurrences along with some specific informational notes for future reference. So please forgive me as it may be boring, and to fill up some of the idle time at night waiting for the next dawn, a bit long winded. And if past trips are any indication, the word McDonald’s may appear quite often.

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In Home Studio Still Life

General Thoughts
Onion and Garlic  © jj raia

Onion and Garlic © jj raia

In last month’s post, I described how I brought along some black foam core to use as a background when my son and I visited a field of sunflowers to give the appearance that the images of individual flowers were taken in a studio rather than out in the field. The results seemed worthy of further exploration, so I brought the idea into my “studio” (or kitchen, depending on how you look at it) and grabbed a few items from around the house to photograph with a dark background using the same black foam core. But this time I placed these objects on a granite countertop called Blue Pearl that has some rather large reflective crystals that appear slightly blue, but especially so when the blinds are opened and there is a blue sky outside.

For lighting the chosen subjects, I utilized a very highly sophisticated set up incorporating the soft light coming in through the kitchen windows to the left of the subjects, combined with the latest iteration of reflective surfaces for an opposite side fill light using white cardboard I found in the storage room, held vertically with a full gallon of ice tea.

Silk Flowers  © jj raia

Silk Flowers © jj raia

For camera equipment I used my trusty full frame DSLR with an antique, manual focus 80-200mm f/4 set almost always at f/22 clamped on a tripod with a wireless shutter release in order to actually hold the black background in place (it seemed to slide down too easily on the granite endangering the delicate subjects) while I tripped the shutter. The wireless shutter release was much less expensive than hiring an assistant for the day. Once the proper exposure was determined, the arrangement of the subject could be changed slightly, experimenting with various placements, without ever having to think about exposure again since there were no clouds to dim the light source. All the other studio (kitchen) lights were turned off to keep the light source temperature consistently daylight and not combined with the warmer tones of tungsten.

There was a hesitancy in using f/22 because of the possibility that the images may become slightly soft from diffraction, generally caused by using such a small aperture. But after zooming in and inspecting the images on the camera screen, the subjects were found to be super sharp with every bit of necessary detail. So much for the deteriorated image quality using f/22… at least on this particular lens. Luckily, a few tiny leftover crumbs on the counter surface discovered later in post processing that were missed when cleaning beforehand, were easily removed with the clone tool in Photoshop. The telephoto was needed to narrow the angle of view on the subjects, which consequently decreased the depth of field available. To compensate, a high f/stop was needed to keep the entire subject in focus without regard of the black background or the closer countertop. The combination of black background and soft focus foreground probably made the subjects appear even more crisp.

Fading Roses No. 2  © jj raia

Fading Roses No. 2 © jj raia

One other note about equipment was the use of a polarizing filter which allowed to more fully control the reflections on the surfaces of the countertop and the subjects themselves. The only regret was not having a large enough countertop to allow for horizontal images using larger subjects. Since the top photo used small objects, zooming in eliminated the rest of the “studio” from the frame and a horizontal framing was possible.

Silver Vase  © jj raia

Mercury Glass Vase and Hydrangea © jj raia

It was a lot of fun searching through the house over the course of a couple days, and discovering different vases and dried flower combinations to create these still lifes[?]. Although the lighting and reflectors used were extremely expensive and required an advanced degree of technical ability, don’t let it deter you from trying to create a studio in your own home.

Wooden Vase  © jj raia

Wooden Vase © jj raia

Lucky

General Thoughts
Newborn Sunflower - Wake County, NC © jj raia

Newborn Sunflower – Wake County, NC © jj raia

I had heard that there was a large field of sunflowers in bloom a 45-minute drive away and decided to head down there to see if there were any photos I could take away before they began to get beyond their peak. I went with my son and I helped him set up his camera and then I began to look for a flower that was interesting and came across this young one that had not opened yet, but revealed a hint of the yellow petals that would soon emerge. It was really hot and humid and we both were sweating almost immediately and would end up, in the short time we were there completely drenched with sweat. I had thought to bring a piece of black foam core along to serve as a background and give the flower a studio look. The big problem however, was focus. I used an old manual focus 80-200mm lens and added a +2 close-up filter to shorten the minimum focus distance to get in really close since I don’t own a macro lens. But, just like a macro, the plane of focus is pretty thin with the close-up filter, so I boosted the ISO and shot at smaller apertures to keep as much in focus as I could (1/250-sec @ f/22 — ISO 800). The problem was a bit of a breeze that kept moving this flower and since I was holding the black background and tripping the shutter wirelessly, I couldn’t look through the lens at the same time to see when or if the flower was in focus as it moved slightly, even though I had focused on it before I moved over to hold the black background. I just crossed my fingers and tried twice. Luckily, one of the two  taken was pretty sharp, while the other was just too soft.

Sunflower and Bee - Wake County, NC © jj raia

Sunflower and Bee – Wake County, NC © jj raia

But it was then that my son had some problems. His 55-200mm lens came apart with one part falling onto the ground!! One of the internal sections just broke away from the rest of the lens and it was rendered useless. While he was getting another lens to continue, I took another shot of a fully bloomed flower with a rather large bee on it, much larger than any of the others that were plentiful. And then everyone who was there, beyond the fence and Do Not Enter signs, were told by some officials we had to get back behind the fences leaving any additional close-ups impossible. I tried a few blurs at 1/2-second, being so bright out, even though this group of flowers was in the shade of a tree, and managed to get one that showed promise before we called it a day having already sweat through our shirts. I suppose that is why I prefer the cooler months to the heat of the summer. As my wife says, “You can always add some clothes to stay warm…”

Sunflower Blur — Wake County, NC  © jj raia

Sunflower Blur — Wake County, NC © jj raia

After processing the image at the top of the post, I decided to have a look at it as a Black and White since the black background may give it the feel of a formal studio portrait and ended up conflicted as to which seemed a better representation of what I may have wanted at the time. Sometimes you may be photographing under adverse conditions, whether extreme heat, cold or heavy rain and the reasoning and thoughts get lost in the battle to filter out the distracting weather. It’s then that you’re probably working on instinct and not being very purposeful in your approach to whatever is in front of the lens.

I wouldn’t mind some preference feedback on these two options from the throng of folks who actually read these things…all seven of you!! or is it down to even fewer?

Newborn Sunflower B+W - Wake County, NC © jj raia

Newborn Sunflower B+W – Wake County, NC © jj raia

 

A Virginia Day Trip

General Thoughts
Lake Gordon — Union Level, VA © jj raia

Lake Gordon — Union Level, VA © jj raia

Last April, I spent some time photographing a few abandoned storefronts in a very rural part of southern Virginia. As I was driving there and getting close, I stopped nearby a few times to try some HDR shots since it was mid-morning with that soft, filtered sunlight that found its way into so many paintings I’d seen by artists of the Hudson River School, and I thought I would try to capture that in a photo of a lake I happened to pass by. This exercise was truly one of painting the scene after the initial HDR was completed. In addition to changing light values in many, many small areas with the Lightroom brushes, I reduced the vibrance and saturation to try to emulate that soft light I spoke of and reduce the signature of the HDR. To really be true to form of the painters of that era, there probably would have been someone in a small boat trying their hand at fishing. But no such luck came along to add that final element, although I suppose I might be able to add one later…

Spring Storm  —  Union Level, VA

Spring Storm — Union Level, VA © jj raia

The second spot I stopped at was an open field with some very blue wild flowers, not so many, but enough to get a grouping for some foreground, but the HDR showed quite a bit of ghosting in the distant trees even though the winds seemed calm. Since I felt The image could never really be used for any printing, I decided to see where I could take it and found that I could change the soft lighting into a threatening storm with some dramatic lighting added to the meadow. So it was simply an exercise in what might be possible and how to work with various elements of Lightroom after the initial HDR was produced. Experimenting sometimes adds experiences and lessons learned that we can hopefully reproduce when the need arises for images we might take in the future.

I was to meet up with a friend to shoot these boarded up buildings and luckily, the sky was still mostly overcast for more even lighting. In the short time we were there, no fewer than three cars pulled up to see what was going on, and so about half my time there was spent talking to these folks, all of whom seemed pleasant enough, except one seemed pretty irritated we were there; but maybe he was just putting on that he was irritated. I certainly hope so.

Red Door — Union Level, VA

Red Door — Union Level, VA © jj raia

As far as the storefronts were concerned, there was no entry into what secrets lay beyond the locked doors and particle board, so everything was dependent on what lay outside. The only building with any color had a red stain applied probably not too long ago, but it, as well as all the others, was difficult to isolate in any meaningful way. But I noticed an oddly placed door above the porch roof and I was able to capture it with a bit of the roof with a long lens from a distance to eliminate any of the sky with the narrow angle of view, as well as any keystoning if I had taken the shot looking up from street level with a wider angle lens. Since the roof sloped downward, I’m not quite sure why there would be a nicely framed door there, especially without a doorknob! But that’s what makes these abandoned places so interesting: trying to figure out the history of what may have occurred over the years that passed. My guess is it may have been a second story exit before the porch roof was added; maybe some of the locals know for sure.

Graffiti — Union Level, VA

Graffiti — Union Level, VA © jj raia

When faced with the situation where larger views just don’t seem as interesting within the frame of the camera as it does as a whole scene, I narrow the view and try to isolate some interesting elements such as doorways or deteriorating paint, and if necessary, get even smaller by looking for some abstracts among the decay.

Flake Board Detail  — Union Level, VA

Flaming Flake Board — Union Level, VA © jj raia

Since it was the beginning of spring, some of the vines that had grown around the structures had begun to show new leaves and after shooting many different locations, I finally found one plant, aptly named Virginia Creeper, latched onto an old screen door that had lost its screen long ago. It was the final shot of the buildings before heading back home after an interesting day trip. I would love to go back again because the last person I chatted with, a local photographer, told me about a few locations outside this tiny town that may be worth exploring. As I’ve said in the past, it always seems that photographers are always willing to share experiences, knowledge and secrets with others, and this day was no exception.

Virginia Creeper  — Union Level, VA

Virginia Creeper — Union Level, VA © jj raia

Spring Trees

General Thoughts
Backlit Buds - Soco Gap — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia017-449

Backlit Buds – Soco Gap — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

I remembered having taken a springtime panorama at Soco Gap a few years ago and decided to head that way to see the same spot with what I thought would be late afternoon backlighting. The hillside was lit beautifully from behind and I took another panorama with that lighting, but with patience, waiting for the hillside to go completely in shade, left only the few foreground trees still lit by the sun. I passed the 40 minutes or so just watching motorists and motorcycles gliding by, but at one point, I turned around and saw a small group of flowers among the meadow grasses. I took a few shots thinking I might blend a sharp image with a blurred one, but ended up simply cropping the upper and lower portions to form a sliver of green punctuated by the lavender flowers.

Flowers in the Meadow t — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Flowers in the Meadow t — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

It’s amazing how much cooler (blue) an image is when taken in the complete shade of late afternoon or early morning on a clear, blue sky day. The image below is an example and was one of the first taken on the trip as a way to get my feet wet since, as most have told me as well, it takes a while to get into “seeing” mode, and I wanted to do some shooting before the first sunset. It was the texture of the trunks that really caught my eye, but after several attempts, most of the images never seemed to work. They were either too busy, off balance, or lacked a central focus where the eye is initially drawn. This was the only one where it wasn’t too cluttered and, by standing slightly off center, the one tree crossed in front of the other giving the image a bit more tension than simply having them all parallel.

Spring Trunks — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Spring Trunks — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

 

Pointalism -  Spring Forest — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Pointalism – Spring Forest — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

What I truly love about spring is the pointalism effect of the tiny buds and new leaves backlit by the sun. Generally, you’re shooting almost directly into the sun, so a lot of care is needed to properly shield the lens from it. Otherwise there is some flare which degrades the image with severely reduced contrast. Also, it is usually a good rule of thumb to reduce the metered exposure by at least 1-2 stops to maintain the brilliance of the buds and that deep, deep dark background as illustrated by the image below.

Backlit Buds near Graveyard Fields — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Backlit Buds near Graveyard Fields — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

After shooting Looking Glass Falls without much inspiration, the sunlight had already begun to reach into the surrounding forest and I thought I would try a panorama even though the lighting was pretty severe. I used a 35mm which is not the usual lens I would use because the distortion at the edges makes it difficult for the software to stitch the frames together. But it seemed to work this time since the air was still enough to maintain almost every leaf as sharp as it could be without any “ghosting”.

Looking Glass Spring Forest — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Looking Glass Forest in Spring  — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

 

The Long View

General Thoughts
Early Morning — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Early Morning — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

In the last post we were talking about the signature of HDR processed images and I found them to be a bit of a problem for long distance views as well. So much so that the image at the top of the previous post was a layered composite of several images blended in Photoshop after the attempted HDR seemed too far from reality. The image above was an HDR coaxed back to “normal” with some editing in Lightroom afterward; but I suppose I may never be satisfied with the results because of my presence at the location when these images were taken. Had I not been there, it may be a different story. But even knowing I was going through the steps for making the several frames of the scene for an HDR image, I still continued to use a split neutral density filter to do some of the work of  balancing the wide range of light values.

Late Afternoon - Woolyback Overlook — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Late Afternoon – Woolyback Overlook — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

The image above was from a single frame (not HDR) that seems to have a more natural look to it; generally more contrasty as we might normally view the scene. A small sunstar was achieved with a very small aperture (f/22) and partially blocking the sun which necessitated moving the tripod in 1/2-inch increments to arrive at just the right position.

Cascading Ridges — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Cascading Ridges — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

The singular draw for long distance views that the Blue Ridge Parkway holds are the various viewpoints along its course that offer the cascading ridge lines that fade in the dust and distance. There is always another overlook that offers a differing view and, depending on the time of year, will provide that perfect blend of tones as the ridges blend into the sky. This was the only cloud in the sky that evening and I took this shot just as the sun hit the horizon so it still has the warm mauve of the sun in the palette. But as the sun disappears below the horizon, the color temperature rapidly moves toward blue and is aptly named the blue hour. By the way, the air temperature rapidly drops then as well! Although the calendar said May, the temperature said winter while the strong winds didn’t help either. As I drove away afterward, the guage in the car read 38-degrees!!

Blue Hour at Cowee Overlook — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Blue Hour at Cowee Overlook — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Of course, long distance views will usually include some panoramas and this trip was no different. Since there were almost no clouds on this evening, I waited for the sun to go completely below the horizon and watched the ridges take on the cooler blue hue of dusk. A total of eight vertical frames using the 80mm end of an 80-200mm zoom were stitched together to create this image. HDR was not needed since the usual 2-stop Split ND filter was used to lower the light value of the sky.

The Blue Ridge in Spring

General Thoughts
Godbeams — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Godbeams — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Springtime along the Blue Ridge Parkway never ceases to amaze me; I always seem to make new discoveries each trip and this year was no exception. A few years back,  it was the white Serviceberry blooms that drew most of my attention, while on another it was the scarlet spring buds of what I believe is a type of maple, but really have no way of knowing for sure, but are unmistakably vibrant when seen. This year, it was the Pink Shell Azalea that were in bloom at the higher elevations, while underfoot tiny bluets were a new addition that I had not noticed in prior years. And I saw my first red trillium this year, but never found an opportunity to photograph any.

Pink Shell Azalea and Rock Wall — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Pink Shell Azalea and Rock Wall — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Bluettes — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

Bluettes — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

However, the one constant through all the years is the electric yellow/green (or is it green/yellow?) of newly emerging leaves, so different from the deeper greens of summer. These new leaves are shiny and therefore require the addition of a polarizer to cut through the sheen in order to reveal their rich color. Not only do I have one in front of my lenses, I also wear polaroid sunglasses to see possible images as I would through the viewfinder since there is such a dramatic difference.  The same holds true for wet rock (below) where the reflections are clearly visible on the left and eliminated by the polarizer in the image on the right.

Volume Two Now Available

General Thoughts
A Photographer's Journey Vol. 2 Cover

A Photographer’s Journey Vol. 2 Cover  © jj raia

The labor was lengthy, and the birth was rather hefty, weighing in at 230 pages, almost 100 more than the first volume, but Volume Two has finally arrived. Luckily, it’s an ebook and actually weighs nothing, but is more about the few “Solo Photo Trips” I’ve taken over the past three years, both long and short, and the travel lessons learned along the way, but still containing some tips and information that hopefully may help some folks. (go to blurb to see the ebook)

However, the greatest take away from all the photo trips is the verified truth in Jim Richardson’s adage that:

“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”

Nothing can illustrate that more than being in Grand Teton National Park as I was this past fall with that majestic mountain range in full view. You can’t help but stand in front of better stuff there because they are a constant presence. More often than not, as photographers, we have to “see” something to record, meaning to search throughout our immediate location and take a small “viewfinder” slice from everything in front of us that is compelling, both to us and others as well. Most times in our everyday life, it can be difficult at times if not downright impossible. But with the grand landscapes of the western US, that “better stuff” is just there, no need to search for it. The one thing that makes this better stuff even better, is weather. The kind that produces interesting cloud formations that help to convey that these scenic wonders have experienced every kind of weather thousands of times over millions of years!! They are not simply static, but experiencing every confrontation the weather can throw at them, and to see these unfold before your own eyes is exhilarating. For the most part, the trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone was a constant flow of weather drifting through the expansive views. Although weather like that usually brings on more difficulties for a photographer, the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences. All those storms made “the more interesting stuff” even more interesting.

Rain Curtains and Teton Range — © jj raia

Rain Curtains and Teton Range — © jj raia

 

Authoring

General Thoughts
A Photographer's Journey Vol. 1 © jj raia

A Photographer’s Journey Vol. 1 © jj raia

It wasn’t too long ago that I created a physical book to chronicle my photography since my month-long trip out west in the autumn of 2014. Although my photography has included other types during this period, I limited it to just the landscape work to give the book more continuity instead of an incoherent rambling of differing imagery. A bit of the background to creating that book was the subject of a recent post on  The New Photo Albums. However, I may have been mistaken in my assessment in that the New Photo Albums may be better as digital books instead of physical books, although there is nothing like thumbing through the pages of a large coffee table book. And it is pretty neat to see one of your panoramas stretching across the almost 28-inches of a two-page spread!

It was from creating that book that generated the spark to look into the idea of creating an ebook, and after researching it a bit, found that producing one may not be all that different from going through the process used in making a physical book. Using the book module contained within Lightroom, I dove headlong into attempting this monstrous undertaking that went on for about 335 pages. I found that it was fairly easy to use, continually learning how to get around some of its limitations and ended up with something similar to the physical book I had finished on Black Friday of last year. When it was finally “done”, all I needed to do was click the Export Book to PDF button on the bottom of the right side panel and after a while, a PDF was created that was the intermediary step in the quest for a final ebook. Then I came up against several roadblocks that required quite a bit of alteration to what I had taken so long to get through.

Perseveration/Indecision

General Thoughts
The White House in Fog © jj raia

The White House in Fog © jj raia

I have read that the most difficult aspect in painting is knowing when to stop…to know that the painting is complete. The same holds true for post-processing in photography. There comes a point where you are picking out and tweaking minute details that need attention to make the image just a tiny bit better, or to correct something that is bothersome to you, even though no viewer would ever even notice in a print that was enlarged to a super size. When you get to that point, it’s probably time to step away and let the image sit for a few days. Then go back and see if there is anything that still needs to be changed. This is one of those photos. It was beginning to haunt me, and finally I determined that all the attention I was giving it would not make it into a better image; it was just not all that great to begin with. It seems to be off balance, too heavy on the right side with not too much that is engaging on the left side. Although at times, I do feel that the foam on the left counterbalances the weight of the foggy shapes in the upper right. But I constantly waffle between the two. So, even though it had already been severely cropped, I tried to crop it again to what is below.

Second Crop Version © jj raia

Second Cropped Version © jj raia

This version seems more balanced, and the boring left side eliminated, but the somewhat expansive view of the initial one at the top has been lost. Additionally, the long, sweeping curve of the foam as it was making its way in toward shore is now gone, a missing element that helped lead the eye toward the fogged-in shapes along the horizon line. The second version seems much flatter, lacking the distance and depth conveyed in the original.

However, what does seem to work are the muted, almost watercolor tones that give it such a soft feeling of silence which, on such a foggy day, is pretty easy to capture simply by tripping the shutter. I will probably continue to perseverate on these two options and, in all likelihood, will probably never reach a conclusion. So, feel free to voice opinions and/or comments, even if it means to say that both should, without passing Go, head directly to the trash bin.

Below is the un-retouched original.

The White House in Fog - Original © jj raia

The White House in Fog – Original © jj raia