Friday, December 31, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Sunset near Sterling, Colorado, July 1979.

(Click on the picture to see a bigger version.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Photo Of The Day

In the garden of the Nijo-Jo, the Shogun's Palace, Kyoto Japan, November, 2006.

(Click on the picture to see a bigger version.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Fishermen, in the evening after a storm, Frankfort Michigan, July, 1976.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in Japan

The Japanese have adopted Christmas as a popular holiday, but as a social holiday rather than a religious one. In some ways, the Japanese have reversed the roles of Christmas and New Years from how we see them in the U.S. For the Japanese, Christmas is a time for parties with friends, while New Years, a very important holiday in Japan, is celebrated by gathering with family. Apart from the religious aspect, it's not such a stretch. People decorate for the holiday, and put up trees, and give gifts.

One curious aspect of the Japanese take on Christmas is the central importance of fried chicken from KFC. No joke. The story I heard, which I can't confirm, is that some American who was in Japan at Christmas time wanted to celebrate it with turkey, but couldn't find one to cook, and so settled for KFC instead, thus starting the fad. What is true is that the KFC company picked up on this and marketed it relentlessly and successfully. KFC outlets are plentiful in Japan, and at Christmas time lines of people waiting to buy fried chicken for Christmas dinner will stretch down the block from each store. People even reserve their Christmas fried chicken months in advance.

Above is a picture of a ubiquitous scene in Japan in November and December. It is a nearly life-sized Colonel Sanders, dressed as Santa Claus. This photo was taken in November of 2006, in a shopping arcade in Kyoto.

Happy holidays, however you choose to celebrate the season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Scattered leaves, Kyoto, Japan, November 2006.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Photo Of The Day

I think that over the holidays, for the next two weeks or so, I'm just going to post some of the pictures I've been working on lately. No particular themes, and, perhaps, no particular good. Who knows?

Here's the Iseshi train station, Ise city, Japan, November 2006. Rendered as a painting. (Click on the image to make it larger.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Snow, Part 2: Night Scenes

Photographing in the snow can be especially fruitful at night. One of the challenges of night photography is the wide dynamic range of any scene that has lights in it. Getting a good, balanced exposure can be next to impossible. In addition to the way it transforms a scene, the reflective quality of snow raises light values at night, and lowers the dynamic range, making it much easier to get a usable exposure. The picture above is an example. It shows fireworks over the Minnesota State Capitol during a raging snow storm. (Minnesotans aren't the least bit fazed by raging snowstorms.)
As I mentioned in my previous post, mundane objects can become interesting in snow. This is doubly true at night. I don't even try to get the white balance right in these situations, I just go for a good exposure.
Taking pictures while the snow is falling can also be very fruitful. Use your camer's flash to light up and freeze the falling flakes in place. This takes some experimentation, but sooner or later you'll get an interesting picture.
While you're playing with the flash, try setting the camera for a long exposure, one or two seconds, with the flash on. As you press the shutter, move or shake the camera. The result will be, as above, that anything in the range of flash is frozen, while lights and bright objects become a blur. Again, experimentation will yield something interesting.

As always, dress for the weather, and remember that the cold will sap your batteries, so have extras stored in a warm place, and keep yourself warm too.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Snow, Part1: Basics

Winter has come to east-central Illinois with a vengeance, and so we might as well spend some time on how to photograph it. Lemons, meet lemonade. Just to be clear, the picture above is not of anywhere in east-central Illinois, which is flat as an ironing board, but of Dubuque, Iowa, taken (on film) in January of 1990. (Click on any picture to see a larger version.) I am fairly sure that winter has come to Dubuque with a vengeance as well, so it's OK to use that picture.

Winter is a wonderful time for photography, but there are a few basic things to know about shooting snow. People often are unsatisfied with the pictures they get of snowy scenes. The reason for this is usually because snow tends to wreak havoc in the camera with two photographic variables: Exposure and white balance.

These things can often be fixed by software, such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture, but you're generally better off getting it right in the camera. The very easiest fix is to use the "snow" exposure setting in your camera, if it has one. The snow setting will automatically correct for both exposure and and white balance. But if not, or if you want more manual control over what happens, both exposure and white balance can be corrected using camera settings at the scene.
Many times pictures of snow end up dark and blue, even though the camera's meter reading was fine at the scene. The problem is that the pure white glare of fresh snow throws off the camera's light meter. It sees the bright white as neutral gray, and dials down the exposure accordingly. The result is an underexposed, drab scene. In the picture above, of the Quad at the University of Illinois, the camera's exposure, on the left, was about 1 1/2 stops underexposed. The fix for this is to use your camera's exposure compensation controls to overexpose snow scenes. The camera's histogram can be very useful for measuring the proper exposure. As you can see, the panel on the right is much closer to the actual scene.
The second problem is white balance. Again, the pure white of the snow is the culprit. In anything but direct sunlight, the white snow reflects the blue of the sky, turning it blue as well. The result is an unpleasant blue cast to the entire picture. The fix is to adjust your white balance in your camera to account for this. Although some cameras may allow you to adjust by color temperature, most have scene settings for white balance. The fix, obviously, would be to switch from automatic white balance (AWB), to the snow white balance. If your camera doesn't have a setting for snow white balance, then the shade setting will help. Pick a white balance that warms up the scene and gets rid of the blue cast. In the picture above, the left panel is the original shot, and the right has been corrected for both exposure and white balance. A real guru will create a custom white balance in camera, based on the scene, but if you can do that then I'm really surprised that you're reading this.
One of the great things about shooting in the snow is that it transforms things, so that even mundane objects become interesting. It also is good for a sort of minimalist approach because the snow obliterates so many details. Try to look at things in the snow with a new eye; it's very rewarding.

On Friday, some special fun shooting snow scenes at night.

Monday, December 13, 2010

More "Paintings"

I'm still having fun with my Photoshop plugin that renders photos as paintings. These are all from Provence, France, in the summer of 2006. Above is the church in the village of Grimaud. Below is a passageway in Gassin. (Click on a picture to enlarge it and get a better view.)
I am finding that it takes a certain kind of photo to work well as a painting. In fact, it is really hit or miss, and I haven't quite nailed down the most important factors. For instance, I thought pictures of flowers would work pretty uniformly, but that's not the case. The picture below is one that does. So I keep experimenting.
The plugin is called Topaz Simplify

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Travel spot: Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois

Nauvoo, Illinois is a small town on the Mississippi, located between Fort Madison, Iowa, to the north, and Keokuk, Iowa, to the south. The town was basically taken over by the Mormons in the late 1830s and became their home base, and the site of their first full scale temple. At the time, the population swelled to 12,000, although it is about 1,000 today. It was at Nauvoo that Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith was arrested, and taken to nearby Carthage, where he was murdered. After his death, and other events, the Mormons moved west to Utah, and Nauvoo was left alone.

Today most of Nauvoo is an historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A new temple has been built, pictured above, completed in 2002. The old town, or "flats" has been preserved with a scattering of buildings from the time. They include, among others, Joseph Smith's House and store (Below).

A few years ago, it happened that I was reading Fawn Brodie's excellent biography, "No Man Knows My History: The Story of Joseph Smith", when I was returing from a trip west and crossed into Illinois from Keokuk. Seeing the signs for Nauvoo, I took the quick 12 mile drive north along the river. It really is quite a sight. There is an elaborate visitors center, run by the Mormon Church, and you can freely wander by the temple, and the preserved buildings on the flats. I was there on a snowy winter day, just after an ice storm had moved through, but it was still a very interesting visit.

From there, it is just 25 miles south and east to Carthage, where the old jail, the site of Smith's murder, is also preserved by the Mormon church.
There is a memorial plaque there, and another visitors center. Admittedly, both of these sites are a bit off the beaten path, but if you are in the area and have the time, Nauvoo and Carthage provide a well-preserved view of a fascinating page in American history.

Information on visiting Nauvoo is available here, and Carthage here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Travel Spot: Woodstock, Illinois-Groundhog Day

The 1992 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray has become a modern classic. While the movie is set in  Punxsutawney Pennsylvania, it was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, a northwest Chicago suburb. There is much to see there relating to the film. The main square is the site of the Groundhog Day activities in the film, and the private home that served as the Cherry Street Inn is nearby on Madison St.
As it happens, some good friends of mine owned, and lived in, the Cherry Street Inn house until just a year or so ago. It was my good fortune to get to spend the night there a number of times. The view above is from the window of the bedroom where I slept on one of my visits. As you can see, this is pretty close to the view the Bill Murray character got up and looked out at each morning.

The interior of the house looks nothing like the interior scenes in the film. They were shot on a sound stage. It is a beautiful house though. My friends would host a lavish Christmas party each year, after which a select select few of us were invited to spend the night. I have some very fond memories of staying up late, six or eight of us, seated around the fire, drinking very nice scotch, and talking until the small hours.
If you visit Woodstock, you won't get to see interior scenes like this unless you know the current owners. However, you can see the house from the outside, along with all the other memorable locations from the film. Add to that some very nice local restaurants, and easy access from Chicago, and you have plenty of reason to visit Woodstock.

Information on Groundhog Day sights in Woodstock is available here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Photo Of The Day

From my first trip to Japan, way back in 1988, here is a picture of shrine maidens, or Mako, at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. I caught them in a rare, and uncharacteristic, moment of levity. Shrine maidens help maintain Shinto shrines and assist with ceremonies, and they carry out their duties with pacific calm and utmost seriousness. I respect that, but it was nice to see this little bit of very human enjoyment.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Travel spot: The Great Plains

I've been reading Ian Frazier's wonderful book "The Great Plains", and it's been reminding me of my trip to Nebraska and the Dakotas in the summer of 2009. In fact, some of the places I visited are discussed in Frazier's book. His point, to which I concur, is that this area is amazingly open and empty, and yet is chock full of interesting history, dating back thousands of years. It takes some doing, but it's worth a visit.

The picture above is of an abandoned building at a stop on the Deadwood to Bismarck stage trail (rendered as a painting). The stop is along Highway 73 in northern South Dakota, south of Lemmon. In the 1870s this trail was one of the most active in the West.
Above is a panorama of Fort Buford, located near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Little Missouri rivers in western North Dakota, just southwest of Williston. This fort, along with the Fort Union trading post a few miles west was an important hub in the 19th Century, and saw many luminaries of the time, from Sitting Bull to John James Audubon. This part of the country is really worth visiting. It will take some time, and some driving, but both the amazing geography, and the strong sense of history make it worthwhile.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Here's a view of the old main telephone exchange in Denver, Colorado. I like the regular lines, broken by various random details and reflections. This shot actually took quite a bit of work get into shape, using tools in Lightroom and Photoshop to correct lens distortion, exposure and colors.

Technical info:  Canon Rebel XTi with Canon 18-200mm EF-S Lens at 18mm; 0.4 sec at f5.0, ISO 400. Lens correction in Lightroom, perspective crop in Photoshop to straighten lines. Adjusted color, clarity, vibrance and exposure in Lightroom.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Huls Cemetery, Champaign County, IL, in infrared. Canon G9 modified for infrared; 7.4mm-44.4mm lens, at 7.4mm; 1/400 at f6.3, ISO 400.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More Infrared

I took my newly infrared-enabled camera with me on my trip to Chicago and Milwaukee last weekend, and was able to test it out a bit in the Illinois countryside. I continue to stumble along in learning this new medium--both as to what makes a good picture in infrared, and how to process the resulting pictures. As for subjects, what little green there is in the countryside tells me that when things are in full foliage I will have a much broader range of potential subjects. On the processing side, I am actually finding Lightroom to be easier to get the results I want than Photoshop. That's a surprise.
I tend toward desaturation on infrared shots, because otherwise the tones get garish no matter how I process them. It is, however, easy to get a nice dark sky with very white clouds, which is an effect I like.
This line of trees is a favorite of mine, and I have shot it any number of times, but the infrared view is quite unique. That bodes well for taking a new look at places I've already explored photographically. There's nothing like finding a fresh new way to look at the world.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wasting Away in the Midwest

If you get off the Interstate and drive the two-lane highways of the Midwest, you will find plenty of evidence of the shift of the population from small towns to large, and the shift of the economy from small to corporate farming and ranching. Particularly west of the Mississippi, many small towns have been completely abandoned, or are barely occupied. Businesses are entirely gone. Older building have been left to rot. It is sad, but also visually compelling. Above is an abandoned house in Walker, Kansas. Below, the largely unoccupied town of Corinth, North Dakota.
A very common feature of such towns is a little old grain elevator, located next to the train tracks. Elevators are still a major feature of Midwest rural life, but they have consolidated to large centralized facilities and rely on trucks rather than rail to haul the grain. Some of the elevators were built for the ages, others, like the one below in Walker, Kansas, are less so.
Small scale commercial activity is the most commonly found type of abandoned buildings in these little towns. Every town used to have a small store and a gas station, and so forth. No more. Below is the little main street in Wild Horse, Colorado.
Finally, another abandoned storefront in Wild Horse:
I'm not trying to make a political argument here about corporatization or globalization or population shifts. These are complex issues, and way beyond my scope here. I love these places for their visual appeal and photographic possibilities, at the same time that they can make me sad.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Photo Of The Day

From my recent trip out west, a grain elevator in the little town of Wallace, Kansas.

Details: Canon EOS 60D with Canon EF-S 18-200 Zoom at 32mm. Exposure 1/125 at f10, ISO 100. Minimal processing in Lightroom to enhance color and clarity.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I now have a camera that can take infrared pictures, and boy, is it fascinating.When I bought my new "carry around" camera, the Canon G12, I took my very used but still serviceable G9 and sent it to the folks at LifePixel to be converted to infrared. All digital camera sensors can detect a much broader range of light than just the visible band. Camera makers place a filter on them to block the infrared and ultraviolet. LifePixel, and others, will replace that filter with one that only allows infrared light through. The camera works as normal, with auto focus, normal light sensitivity, etc., but the images are infrared.
Above is one of the very first shots I took, out my office window. No great shakes photographically, but the clearly the creative possibilities are endless. Since it is late autumn, I am not really getting the full effect in these shots, as some of the most dramatic effects with infrared are achieved with bright green foliage.
One caveat of all this is that lots of post processing is required. The picture above is the straight-from-the-camera version of the image that is at the top of this post. As you can see, it is very flat and reddish. In order to get to look like it does above, I had to switch around the red and blue color channels, adjust levels, and play with hue and saturation, all in Photoshop CS5. This was all after setting a custom white balance in the camera itself before taking the picture.
As you can see, using an average white balance results in a much redder picture in the camera. Making the sky blue really doesn't get rid of an overall cast. It's not necessarily a bad effect, but it's very strong.
One nice thing about infrared is how well it converts to black and white. The red cast really benefits a contrasty image and dark sky.

I'm just getting started with this new technique, but I am very excited by the creative possibilities. As I get better examples of infrared pictures, I will post them here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Trip West: Summing up

I've been posting pictures from my recent trip west without really talking about the trip itself. I thought I'd post a quick summary of the trip, along with links to the various entries that cover specific parts.

(I know I've already posted several versions of the the night shot of Monument Valley, above, but it's the one shot I really wanted to get on this trip, and so I'm posting it again. Plus, I really like it.)

I started the trip in mid October by driving west from Illinois, across Missouri, Kansas, and eastern Colorado to the edge of the Rockies, north of Denver. I took some pictures along the way, and have many from other trips, but the plains were not my goal for this trip. Rather, the important part of the trip was a counter-clockwise loop that crossed the Rockies in northern Colorado to northeastern Utah, then ran south through eastern Utah, east across northwest Arizona and northern New Mexico, and then north through south and central Colorado, back to the Denver area. From there, it was due east back to Illinois.

Heading west from the Denver area (Loveland, actually), I had planned to cross the mountains, and the continental divide, by driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. However, as happens, the road through the park was closed. It turns out that there aren't a lot of alternative routes. My best option was to drive south through the mountains to I-70, west for 10 miles or so, and then back north on Highway 40, in order to pick up my intended route at Granby. This added about four hours of driving to my trip that day. I ended up crossing the continental divide at Berthoud Pass, and then ran west across the Northwest Colorado range lands.

I spent the night in Vernal, in northeast Utah, and then drove south through northeastern Utah, headed for the Moab area.

Moab, of course, is quite close to a number of Utah's amazing national Parks. While in the area, I visited Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park.

I have to say that I feel like I picked a very good time of year for this trip. The weather was mild, but very nice, and the crowds were minimal in what are otherwise notoriously crowded parks. October is a good time to visit this part of the country.

After my time in Moab, I continued south to the iconic Monument Valley, located at the Navajo Nation Tribal Park of the same name. I stayed in the wonderful View Hotel, part of the main viewing and visitor center for the park, and my hotel room had a stunning view of the valley. It was raining when I arrived, to my disappointment, but it cleared after midnight, and I took advantage of it. I was very happy with the pictures I got there.

From Monument Valley I headed south into Arizona, and then east toward New Mexico, eventually making my way to Taos. Northern New Mexico is really quite beautiful, and as I drove through the little town of Abiquiu, I could fully understand why Georgia O'Keefe settled there.

From Taos I headed north into central Colorado, up through the San Luis Valley, eventually reaching I-70, which took me east to Denver.

It was a great trip, and just what I'd hoped for. I got to see some areas of the country I'd never seen before, and the photographic opportunities were marvelous. In the future, I'd like to return to Canyonlands National Park, and preferably have a couple of days there. I'd also love to spend more time in northern new Mexico.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Central Colorado

I have driven through the San Luis Valley in the past, but not to the extent I did this time. I started all the way down in Taos, went north through Alamosa, and then kept going north up through Fairplay and Breckenridge, to reach I-70. In the photo above, the full moon is barely visible as it sets behind the San Juan Mountains, just south of Alamosa, on the southern reach of the San Luis Valley.
Over the course of the drive I went from broad plains between mountains at 7,000, to narrower valley at 10,000 feet, and then right into the mountains themselves. It was quite beautiful. Here is a shot of Mount Shavano, a 14,299 foot high peak in the Sawatch range, northwest of Salida.

The entire trip was great fun. I'd do it again any day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Northern New Mexico

Northern New Mexico is an entirely different ecosystem from that of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It is still mountainous, and elevated (Taos is at 7,000 feet), but it's much more verdant. There are trees and grasslands. It is, in short, quite beautiful. Above is a picture of the Rio Chama just north of Abiquiu, which is in the mountains southwest of Taos.
 I spent the night in Taos, and then headed north into Colorado the next morning. Heading north from Taos I went through some beautiful countryside, highlighted by the rising sun to the east and the setting full moon to the west. Here's a shot of the rising sun above the grass lands, with some fog and the mountains in the background (yes, it's HDR).
At one point, I drove down into a valley, and straight into a pea soup fog bank. As I headed down, the top of the fog was behaving like a wildly pitching sea. Here's a shot of that view. It almost looks like it was taken from an airplane above the clouds.