Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Night Photography, Part I

I've always really enjoyed night photography, and the special effects you can get by shooting at night. This is another area where digital cameras have greatly enhanced the process, not least because the ability to  view your image immediately has made the trial and error of night shooting much more feasible. Many of the normal rules of exposure don't apply with night photography, so experimentation is required, and the bad shots usually outnumber the good.

The shot above, from September of 2006, is of the Foellenger Auditorium on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Illinois.  It is an HDR image, a combination of three different exposures, a technique  whose use at night I've described here. The picture was taken soon enough after sundown to preserve some color in the sky.

Moving lights are a great subject for night photography, especially when the lights provide lots of color. This image from the Minnesota State Fair in August of 1997 was an attempt to include the moon with the whirling lights on the rides. The moon can be tricky to expose properly, and it is overexposed here, but it is a small enough part of this picture that I think it still works.

Finally, here is a shot of the Imperial Palace Moat in Tokyo, Japan on a November evening in 2006. The moat itself, and the Wadakura Fountain Park on the island beyond it are dark, but illumination from the surrounding city provides plenty of moody light. The stone wall on the right of the image is illuminated by the bright sign atop the Palace Hotel.

I haven't done as much night photography as I'd like, partly because of security concerns, or because I am an early riser, or just laziness. I hope to do more in the future.

Next time we'll look at the challenges of night photography under city lights.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My first time-lapse video

On my recent trip from Boston to Chicago I set up a camera in the front passenger seat of the car and took a photo every 15 seconds. Here is the result:

Boston to Chicago Time lapse from Paul D. Healey on Vimeo.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Travel Spot: Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Paris' most famous cemetery is Père Lachaise, the final resting place of many french notables, along with famous foreigners who died in Paris, such as Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Isadora Duncan. Père Lachaise is worth a visit, but it's a bit overrun. For an equally wonderful Paris cemetery experience, minus the crowds, you might consider a visit to the Cimetière du Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Montparnassse is a beautiful cemetery, and has no shortage of celebrities. Among others, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, Cesar Franck, Susan Sontag, and the photographer Brassai are all buried here.

What makes Montparnasse truly worth a visit are all of the wonderful statues. The picture above is a good example: This monument to the Charles Pigeon family features life sized sculptures of Mother and Father Pigeon in bed. I didn't have a wide enough lens with me to truly get it all in the shot.

Here's another example, this time a life-sized statue of a child placing roses at the base of her father's bust. The examples go on and on, and some are quite famous. One gravestone is a famous original sculpture by Brancusi, called "The Kiss":

And then of course, there are angels and spectres of death too many to represent here:

Montparnasse is a lovely spot to visit if you are in Paris. Some good information on visiting the cemetery, with more pictures, can be had here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Photo Project: Panoramas

The picture above is of an encroaching rain storm in North Dakota, June 2009.  It makes a nice panorama.

Panoramas are all the rage. The usual technique for making them is to take a series of shots along the horizon, then stitch them together edge-to-edge using Photoshop or other software. Problems abound with this approach, though. The exposures have to be exactly the same, even if part of the final product is left over or underexposed, because otherwise colors don't match in the final image. Technically, in order to have the separate images line up properly, the camera needs to rotate between exposures on the exact center axis of the lens, something hard to do without specialized equipment. Getting a really polished panorama can be a hard thing to do. There is, however, an often overlooked, and much easier approach.

Years ago in the 80's,  during the abortive attempt to popularize the APS film format, one of the miraculous features that APS cameras had was to switch into "panorama mode" and create long horizontal shots. Did the cameras have a special lens for this? No, they used the moderately wide angle lens on the camera, and simply cut off the top and bottom thirds of the image. It's a trick you can do right now with your camera and any photo manipulation software. Simply use a wide angle lens, or wide angle setting, compose the image with a strong horizontal center, and use your software to crop it into a panorama. No stitching required, no inherent exposure issues, no camera manipulation. Try it some time. It's easy and fun.

Here's another shot from that North Dakota trip.  I think it proves my point.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Photo of the Day

It took me several years to get around to making this image. In the late 1990's, as I would drive south out of St. Paul, Minnesota on US 52, I always noticed a little cemetery right across the road from a major refinery. I figured if I could find my way to the cemetery at night, the results might be worth it. And so they were.

This is not HDR. I took it as a single exposure on film in 1999 (one of many), using a flash to expose the headstones against the far brighter refinery lights. I scanned it into Photoshop and did some tweaking with curves, but that's about it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Travel Spot: Matsushima

The Japanese have identified three iconic, must-see vistas in their country, known collectively as the three great views of Japan. One of the three is Matsushima, a bay near Sendai peppered with small, pretty islands covered in pine trees. Matsushima is located in the northeast of the island of Honshu, and is therefore in a part of Japan that many foreigners never get to. That's a shame. Sendai is a modern city about the size of St. Louis, both bustling and beautiful. It is known as the "city of trees", and has an interesting history, a major university, and close access to Matsushima. It is also on the main Bullet Train line, making access from Tokyo and elsewhere quite easy.

 Although the "great view" can be had from select places around the bay, many people also take a cruise among the islands. There are many attractions onshore as well, of course.

Matsushima itself is the site of several ancient Buddhist temples. The Godaido, pictured above, sits right on the edge of the bay, and was established in the year 807. The existing building was built in the 1600s, which is amazingly old for Japan. The entire area is fun to visit, and offers wonderful opportunities for photography, and people watching.

Information on visiting Matsushima is available here and here. Sendai tourist information is here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Photo of the Day

Another mostly desaturated shot today. I like the strong lines of this image, as well as the shadows and reflections. At 90 percent desaturated, you get just hint of the blue of the long sign and the pink of the brick.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Photo Project: Shadows

Shadows are fun to keep an eye out for with the camera. They often present a strong graphic element that is offset by the ethereal nature of the shadow itself. In my photography, I find that light poles and electrical wires commonly show up as shadows. The picture above is from Hakodate, Japan, May 2005.

One sunny October day in Chicago in 2005 I looked down with my camera, instead of up for once, and found some wonderful shadow shots, such as that above, and below.

A variation of this is the light reflection, which I suppose is a sort of counter-shadow. the picture below is of the side of the old Grand Theater in Dubuque, Iowa, May 1984.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Travel Spot: Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

Just over the hill to the east from Nice is the beautiful harbor village of Villefranche-sur-Mer. It has a fortified harbor with ancient battlements, and a medieval castle glowers over it from the top of the bluff. The town itself is colorful, with small pedestrian-only streets.

As with much of Provence, there are flowers everywhere, and intimate outdoor restaurants that beckon you to sit for a while on a summer day.

Scenic photography possibilities abound. Below the town is the harbor, which stays fairly crowded with boats of all sizes. Apparently cruise ships occasionally stop by and let their passengers visit for the day. There are also a couple of popular beaches. Like, Nice, they are gravel, but that didn't seem to bother the people using them.

 If you are in the area of Nice or Monte Carlo, put Villefranche on your list for at least a few hours visit.

Tourist information on Villefranche is available here

Friday, March 12, 2010


Years ago I was married and we had dogs. Whippets, to be exact, along with the occasional Italian Greyhound. We had up to five at a time, so it was quite a house full. They were sweet dogs though, and like most dogs, spent about 90 percent of their time sleeping. They enjoyed sleeping right on top of each other (and us) in a sort of big pile.

I'm not much of an animal photographer, but these dogs made it easy. They are all long gone now, victims of old age. Here are two of my favorites, Shiney and Handsome, piled on the couch in 1998. The original shot was scanned from film, and then I desaturated it about 80 percent in Photoshop for a nearly, but not quite, monochrome effect.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Photo Project: Reasonable HDR, Part II: Controlling Contrast

As I explained in yesterday's post, HDR can be used for photographic good or evil. We'll let the evil uses take care of themselves. On the good side, in addition to enhancing the tonal range of night scenes, HDR can be very useful for controlling contrast. Because of this, I plan ahead for the possibility of HDR processing when I'm out shooting.

If possible, I try to make liberal use of auto-exposure bracketing. I set the camera to take one shot at the meter reading, one shot 2 stops under and a third shot two stops over. Sometimes the first exposure is fine, and I ignore the other two. But fairly often, as with the case of the image above of trees in Cherry County Nebraska, the original was flat and blah. In particular the green of the trees and grass was muddy, and the sky washed out. However, using the other two exposures to create an HDR image resulted in what you see above, which is much closer to the original scene, and a pleasing image.

You can also use HDR to reduce contrast. In this example from the Gekku Shrine in the Ise Shrine Complex in Ise, Japan, the original on the left is underexposed and contrasty. The HDR version on the right has much better mid-tones and overall tonal range. (HDR didn't remove the walking lady; I cloned her out.)

This exposure also demonstrates another HDR trick. If you shoot in RAW, you can create HDR images with just one exposure, by copying and manipulating the original RAW file. In this case there was only one exposure, but I duplicated it twice, and took the exposure down two stops in Adobe Camera RAW for the first copy and up two stops in the second. I then processed the resulting three images with Photomatix for the result on the right.

HDR doesn't have to result in garish otherworldly images. Used reasonably, it can be a useful tool for enhancing exposures.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Photo Project: Reasonable HDR, Part I: Night scenes

HDR, or high dynamic range images, are all the rage right now, for better or ill. The idea with HDR is to blend different exposures of the same scene so that all of the light values present in the actual scene are represented in the final image. Unfortunately the process is often used to achieve an extreme effect that looks looks ridiculous, at least in my opinion. I won't point any fingers or give any examples; you either agree with me or you don't.

Abuses aside, HDR can be a real boon as a method of extending the tonal range of an image to make it more realistic. There are two shooting situations in which I keep HDR in mind as a processing possibility. The first is when a scene is contrasty. I'll discuss that in a post tomorrow. The other is night photography involving partially lit scenes, where the tonal range of the original scene far exceeds the ability of a camera to record in one exposure.

I will assume you know how to make HDR images, or can find out (just Google "HDR"). The problem is not how to make them, but how to use the effect so that it enhances your image rather than making it garish.

Scenes like the one above, on Wacker Drive in Chicago, just beg for the HDR treatment. Using exposure bracketing I made the first exposure according to the meter reading, which was 15 seconds at f/11 (ISO 100), then took a shot two stops under and two stops over. I blended those exposures using Photomatix HDR software.  The resulting combination produced a much more realistic version of the scene than was presented by any of the originals.

Here are the original three exposures. All were shot on a Canon Rebel XTi with a Canon 10mm-22 zoom at 12mm, all are f/11 and ISO 100. The first shot is at the meter reading of 15 seconds (notice the distortion in the buildings):

The second shot is two stops underexposed at 4 seconds:
 Shot number three is two stops overexposed at 30 seconds:
Obviously, other problems had to be corrected as well.  I was using a 10mm-22mm zoom set at 12mm, which created a lot of distortion in the buildings. In order to straighten them up, I had to do some pretty extreme manipulation using the lens correction filter in Photoshop. Finally, I shifted the color temperature toward the blue to counter the yellow cast of the street lights. This also corrected the blue of the sky.

Tomorrow: HDR for contrast correction.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


As a Midwesterner, I have had very few opportunities to photograph in the desert. In fact I have only been to the desert three times, all three in New Mexico and Nevada, but I have found it to be fascinating each time. The picture above was taken in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, near Las Vegas. The original was in color, but I thought it rendered well in black and white, as do many desert pictures. Here is a color shot from the same area:
It's hard to describe what is so appealing about the desert. There is something very stark about it that lends itself to photography.

On one trip to New Mexico in 1985 we passed the famous Ship Rock, a site sacred to the Navajo:
We also stopped at the Acoma Pueblo, pictured here from a distance:
Finally, here is another shot from Lake Mead:
Obviously, I need to plan a trip that will allow me to spend some quality photographic time in the desert.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Travel Spot: Hamlet's Castle

When Sakespeare wrote down the legend that became Hamlet, he decided to set the play in a real place: Kronborg castle, in the town of Helsingor, Denmark. The castle sits at the tip of Zealand, north of Copenhagen, and at the very mouth of the Baltic. The Oresund, the sound between Denmark and  Sweden, is just two and half miles wide at this point. The castle originated in the 15th century, and made the perfect background for Shakespeare's tale of deceit, murder, and madness.

Kronborg today is still a possession of the Danish Crown, but is open to the public, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle is an hour's train ride from Copenhagen, or just a 20 minute ferry ride across the Oresund from Helsingborg, if you happen to be in southern Sweden.
Above is a view of the castle's large central court with its facing ornate tower. When I visited Kronborg in June of 1990, there was a concert going on in the great hall, and some official looking cars and drivers waiting around:
I inquired what was going on, and the security chief (the man with the dog in the picture above) told me that Crown Prince Frederik was in attendance, but would be leaving soon. I asked if I could hang around a get a picture of the Prince, expecting to be shown the door, but the security people had absolutely no problem with that all. A different time I guess. So, I waited, and in due time Prince Frederik came out:
Hamlet was the Crown Prince of Denmark, so I got a kick out getting a picture of the current Crown Prince in Hamlet's castle. One hopes that the current Prince's life will have a very different outcome than Hamlet's. Here's another shot of the Prince:
Kronborg Castle is very much worth a visit if you are in the area, whether or not you meet royalty while you are there. The official tourism site for Kronborg is here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Photo Project: Abstract Expression, Part III: Reflections

I've already discussed some of the possibilities of reflections (here), but they have great potential in creating abstract images as well. The image above is a collage of three separate shots taken of a store front window in the Georgetown area of Washington DC in October of 1990. I find the jumble of human shapes, contrasting with the geometric divisions of the window, to be a compelling image.

I took a similar approach for this shot of a sushi restaurant window in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo in May of 2005. In this case, though, the abstraction is partly culturally bound. The characters painted on the window are abstract shapes to me, but would have meaning to someone who can read Japanese.

Below is another restaurant picture from Japan, also May 2005, but this time in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. In this case a patterned translucent window adds sprays of color around the lights, and renders the people as half formed shapes.

I find that making abstract photos is a messy process. Experimentation is necessary. Only a small fraction of the shots I attempt are worth a second look. Even then, for all I know, they may only appeal to me. Still, playing with abstraction is a lot of fun. I recommend it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Photo Project: Abstract Expression, Part II: Moving the Camera

Moving the camera during exposure is traditionally seen as a mistake or a problem, but done properly it can create abstract images with real value.  There is a fine line between artful abstraction through camera movement and and a sloppy blurred shot, and I confess I'm not always sure where that line is. Still, through experimentation I've made some images that I like.

The image above is of one of the long, deserted corridors of the former TWA hub at St. Louis' Lambert Airport. Using a Canon Powershot A80, I set the camera for a 0.8 second exposure at f/8, and then twisted the camera vigorously during exposure. I liked the result, or at least this particular one of the many shots I tried, and I enhanced the colors using curves in Photoshop.

I find that getting good abstract images through camera movement is often enhanced by looking for blocks of color. Here is a picture from Kyoto, Japan, of two women in kimono hustling for a train:

The blocks of color created by the kimono and the contrasting obi make for a pleasing blurred image. (Canon Powershot A620; 1/25 sec at f/8.0; November 2006)

In a similar way, camera movement can imitate cubism. Depending on lighting and movement of the subject, the blurred motion can take on a choppy or angular feel. Here is another picture from Kyoto, this time of a couple walking outside the train station:
The camera movement imparts a cubist feel to the image, although the couple remain identifiable as such. (Canon Powershot A620; 1/2 sec at f/4.0; November 2006)

Practicing camera movement enough will help develop instincts for what scenes and what movements work best. With a digital camera experimentation is essentially free, so there's no harm trying until you get something you like. 

Tomorrow: Abstraction using reflections

Friday, March 5, 2010

Photo Project: Abstract Expression, Part I: Close Up


One of the wonderful things about photography, especially in the digital age, is that its flexibility is truly infinite. I have long enjoyed looking for the abstract in my photos. It's a tricky concept, and perhaps not to everyone's taste, but I find that certain abstract forms have a palpable energy as images. Over the next three posts I want to look at three different ways that I've found abstract images that move me.

The first approach is the close up. Up close, the normal elements of an image lose their context, and reveal parts of themselves that are often missed. The image above is simply of the side of a backhoe, just above the step that workers use to enter the vehicle. Years of scuffing by steel toed boots had revealed the bare metal, while spatters of paint and cement added to the patina. I took the original image, applied a rather extreme set of curves in Photoshop, and ended up with an image that some viewers have mistaken as an abstract oil painting.

The image below is from the very same day, and the same job site. It got the same treatment. In this case the image is of a dent and paint splotches on the side of a dumpster.

Obviously, the possibilities for this are infinite, and you don't have to venture to an exotic locale to find ideas and images. The photo below may not be abstract in the strictest sense, but it's also not manipulated in any way, and I think it makes an interesting image:

As I say, close up abstract opportunities are everywhere.
Tomorrow, abstraction by moving the camera.