Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Everyday HDR

High dynamic range imaging (HDR) has suffered from the worst and the best effects of being a fad for a couple of years now. It burst onto the scene as a way to create surreal looking exposures--a look that many of us didn't like from the start. But HDR techniques can be used more subtly, and for better purposes. My contention is not only that HDR is here to stay, but you and I will soon be using it every day.

I've written about HDR a number of times on this blog. I've also made my feelings clear about using a more subtle approach to HDR here and here, so I won't repeat myself on that. My point today is that HDR is on the verge of becoming ubiquitous in photography. And that is a very, very good thing.

HDR has been the holy grail of photography since its very beginnings. Photographic media (glass plates, film, digital sensors) have never been able to capture the full range of light visible to the human eye. As result, any photo of a given scene shows something less than the full range of light that you would see viewing the scene live. The compromise has been to lose part of the light in the photograph: Either expose for the highlights and lose detail in the shadows or expose for the shadows and blow out the highlights. In the picture of Kyoto Tower, above, a straight shot would either let you read the lighted signs, but leave the intersection in murky shadow, or let you see the intersection, but render the signs as white blobs of light. HDR fixes that, by combining exposures so that everything can be represented. What a wonderful thing.

The garish, surreal version of HDR that you see so often is a result of overdoing it. By representing literally every light value in a scene as normal, it no longer looks the way it would when we look at it live. The effect can be disturbing. But take a more sublte approach, and even a very common photo can be improved. There is nothing special about the picture above, taken at a lookout in Chatahoochee National Forest in North Georgia. However, I was shooting bracketed exposures for HDR purposes, so I had three exposures, two stops apart. The "normal" exposure was fine, but a bit contrasty because of the strong sunlight. I could have worked with it in Photoshop and been OK. But I decided to HDR it instead, and the result was just right.

I'm not privy to the future plans of the photographic industry, but I know that some cameras can already do HDR in-camera. I predict that that trend will continue, both in cameras and software, so that HDR is available all the time. I also would predict that engineers are finding ways to increase the sensitivity of CMOS sensors to allow the capture of a broader range of light in a single exposure. When they accomplish that, it won't be HDR any more--it will be normal.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Travel Spot: Monterey, California

In recommending the travel spots that I do, my goal is to highlight places that I have found interesting, but that I think are often overlooked by travelers. I'm not sure that Monterey, California qualifies for this. With its Fisherman's Wharf (above), famous aquarium and Cannery Row, I suspect it gets its share of tourists. Still, if you haven't been, it's worth a visit. The ocean there is quite beautiful, and the rugged shoreline teems with life.

Apart from the sort of California vibe that you might expect, Monterey has good food, great weather, and fun things to do. It is well situated, just a couple of hours drive from San Francisco, and with easy access to Pebble Beach, Carmel, Big Sur, and, of course, Gilroy--the garlic capital of the world. What's not to like?
The pictures here are from my visit to Monterey in November of 1997. I was shooting film, and was heavy into my colored filters phase, about which I shudder a bit now. I also seemed to spend most of the trip shooting directly into the sun. Apparently, I wanted to get the maximum amount of flare out of the cheap lenses I was using at the time. We live and learn, I guess.
Monterey tourism information is available here, and information on the Gilroy Garlic Festival is here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Photo of the Day

A personal favorite from my last trip to Japan in November 2006. Two parallel escalators leading down into the Kyoto Subway end at different points, for an effect that is both disorienting and intriguing. Canon Powershot A620, 1/60 at f3.5. ISO unrecorded.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Clouds are a great subject for any photographer to pursue. They are natural, and part of the landscape, and yet they can be abstract and highly artistic. They dominate the sky, but can also be background. The picture above was taken on the plains of North Dakota, where clouds can be an especially dramatic part of the landscape.

Below are clouds over the gulf of Mexico, off Perdido Key, Florida, west of Pensacola (and area now inundated by the BP Gulf oil spill). It was taken in November of 2009. Here again, the clouds and the mottled sun set  a mood.

Clouds can be the subject of a photo, or enhance the subject. the wispy clouds behind the Washington monument on Washington, DC, help reinforce the geometric nature of the subject. Their ethereal shapes in the sky contrast strongly with the stark lines of the monument, and the strongly geometrical circle of flags.
I find that clouds render well both in color and black and white. Each has its own charm and appeal. In color, there are almost infinite variations of tone, but in black and white, the graphic elements of the cloud's shape come to the fore. In the picture below, a line of dry Illinois corn awaiting harvest underlines the scattering of clouds above.
And the last great thing about clouds as a subject? They're everywhere. Just look up.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Travel Spot: Sendai, Japan

Having already recommended Matsushima as a place to visit in Japan, I would remiss not to mention Sendai, just next door. Although it is a city of 3 million people, and the gateway to one of the three "Great Views" of Japan, Sendai is off the beaten path for most foreign visitors to Japan. That's too bad. Sendai has culture, sights to see, good food and drink, and combines it all with modern infrastructure and access to what you might call the "real" Japan.

The picture above was taken from the Atago Shrine, which has a sweeping view of the skyline and the Hirose river. The area around Sendai is quite hilly, and the surrounding area includes shoreline, the afore-mentioned Matsushima, and many other historical sites. The city itself was bombed to ruin in World War two, but in rebuilding took care to build broad avenues lined with Zelkova trees. This effort was so successful that Sendai is now called "The City of Trees".

Sendai is the home of Tohoku University, a major research institution with 18,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It has the vibrant life a of a major university, and provides culture and other points of interest. During my visit in 1988 I happened upon the modern dance performance pictured above while looking for my bus stop on the Tohoku Campus. It was free, open to the public, and quite fascinating.
Sendai's main claim to historical fame was as the home of Date Masumuni, and his succeeding clan. Date was a warlord, or Daimyo, who consolidated his family's holdings in northern Japan, and in 1600 was rewarded for assisting the first Shogun by being given Sendai as his base of power. Date built a large castle, now gone, but still an historical site (above). For many years his territory was the northern border of "civilized" Japan, and the Date clan protected it from incursions by the Ainu and other enemies.
I found the people of Sendai to be very friendly, and there was lots to do. If you get the chance, I'd recommend a visit.

Sendai tourism information can be found here, and here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Photo of the Day

Here in the flat lands of East-Central Illinois, the sky is as much a subject as anything. I learned to see, and photograph, the sky only after I moved here. Now I am endlessly fascinated. In this photo from late December 2006, a large bank of late afternoon clouds was beginning to clear from the west, allowing the sun to both shine through slightly overhead, while lighting the horizon at the same time.

(Canon Rebel XTi with Canon 18-55 zoom at 25mm. Exposure was 1/320 at f14, -1 EV Exposure bias, ISO 100. Colors enhanced in Lightroom 2))

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


"Photoshopping" has entered the lexicon as a verb ("to Photoshop") that usually means to deceive. Specifically, it indicates when Adobe's ubiquitous photo editing program has been used to change a picture so that it no longer reflects reality. In fact, photos have been manipulated to deceive since the first days of photography. It's nothing new, and certainly nothing for which the blame lies solely with Adobe, or Photoshop. But, as with so many aspects of modern camera technology, Photoshop has made making realistic changes to existing photos very, very easy.

As you may suspect, the picture above has been manipulated. Not by much, but enough. In the original, below, the lightning strike is very near the house with the lighted windows, but doesn't actually hit it (thankfully). But ever since I took this shot, in Iowa City in 1985, I've been struck by how much fun it would be if the lightning looked like it was hitting the house, and lighting it up inside. With Photoshop, I was able, as a neophyte with the program, to accomplish that change in about 5 minutes. It's probably not the best job--if you look closely at the lightning above the trees you can see where I cut and pasted and tried to fix the clouds, but I certainly got it done.

To the extent that we depend on a given picture to accurately reflect reality, or more importantly to serve as evidence, Photoshopping is an issue. Advertising uses it extensively, and there is a an ongoing debate about the effect of this on negative body image, particularly among women and girls. I take that seriously, but I think that photoshopping is here to stay. We have to work with it, and if necessary, work around it.

For my own work, it hasn't been much of an issue. On the one hand I very rarely do the kind out-and-out manipulation like that above. On the other hand, I am not trying to necessarily reflect reality in my photos. Rather, for me photography is an emotional expression, and the manipulation that I do is in service of that expression. I think the real answer here, and the only one that works across the board, is transparency: To be honest about the intent of my work, and to be honest about the techniques I use. That way the viewer can evaluate the work for themselves, without being deceived.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Travel Spot: Vienne, France

In the summer of 2006, after a month in Provence, I was driving up to Paris to fly home. Along the way I picked Vienne, at random, as the place to spend the night. I could hardly have chosen better. Vienne is a beautiful ancient town of about 30,000 people on the Rhone River, just south of Lyon. It was a major Roman outpost, and to this day has quite an array of Roman structures, including an amphitheater that is still in use.

There is much to see and do in Vienne. The amphitheater is the site of a famous annual Jazz festival, held each July. There is an intact Roman shrine, an ancient cathedral, a medieval castle's ruins,  museums and other attractions. My only great regret was that I only had a few hours to poke around the town and its sights. Vienne is very high on my list of places I would like to return to as a primary destination.
As a late vacation splurge, I stayed in the four star hotel La Pyramide, named for the Roman pyramid nearby. The pyramid was built by the Romans at the turning point of the half mile long Circus race track they built in Vienne. It survives to this day. The chef of the hotel's restaurant, Patrick Henriroux, has two Michelin Stars. Needless to say, I had an amazing meal that evening.

Tourist information on Vienne is available here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Photo of the Day

A nice shot from my trip to the Dakotas a year ago. The road meanders up over the hills and out of the frame. This was taken somewhere in south Dakota, but I'm not sure exactly where.

Locating photos during my wanderings has been a persistent problem. I try to take notes, but no manual system is perfect. I just ordered a new portable GPS unit that I hope will solve this problem (I haven't received it yet). The new GPS (A Garmin Nuvi 765T) can do route logging, in which it records where you are when. With that in use, I should be able to determine the locations of my photos after the fact by matching the time of the exposure to the trip log. I know that some cameras do this already, and there is software to record location data directly in a digital photo's EXIF file. I'm sure that a camera that automatically records the exact location of each photo when it is taken is in my future. Until then, I hope the new GPS will be a good solution.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cameras These Days

We have entered a golden era for camera equipment. I'm not saying things won't get better than they are right now, but things right now are amazingly good. I think it would be worthwhile to reflect on that fact briefly.

The picture above is one of the very first pictures I took with a digital camera, in June of 2004. The camera was a Canon A80, which had a measly four megapixels of resolution. Resolution notwithstanding, it took great pictures, and did so right out of the box. Part of the reason for this is the rest of the technologies that have advanced over the years. Lenses, for example, have never been better, with even cheap cameras carrying very sharp, fairly fast, variable zoom lenses that would have been unheard of 35 years ago.

By contrast, the picture below  is one I took of the old city in Jerusalem in 1973 with a Kodak Instamatic camera on 126 film:
Granted, the film was 35 years old when scanned, and some things like the horizontal lines are scoring on the film that are the result of age. But the picture itself has a softness and other flaws that are the direct result of much less developed technology--particularly the cheap plastic lens on such cameras at the time. My point is that my Canon A80 is the equivalent of an Instamatic for its time, and a 15-year-old me, with all other factors being equal, would have taken a much better picture with a modern digital camera.

The two main cameras I use today, a Canon G9 point-and-shoot and a Canon Rebel XTi DSLR, or both getting long in the tooth, but both provide 10 or 12 megapixels of resolution (respectively) and provide the gamut of automatic and controlled shooting modes, shoot in RAW, provide histograms, exposure bracketing, and, in the case of the G9, even shoot video. Now I'm thinking about buying a Canon 7D, whose specs put those to shame, right up through shooting full 1080p HD video. Amazing. The lenses I have for the DSLR are similarly wonderful. Both zooms and prime lenses are faster, lighter and cheaper than ever before.

Meanwhile, the camera industry is innovating like crazy, with new systems like the Micro Four Thirds cameras providing interchangeable lenses on small, compact camera bodies, or systems where the interchangeable lens and the sensor are one unit, like the Ricoh GXR. On another front entirely, the introduction of full fledged HD video recording capabilities to high end DSLRs like the Canon 5D is giving videographers high-quality, light weight equipment with a broad array of great lenses, and revolutionizing video production.

A camera is just a tool. It still requires vision and discipline to get good pictures. But what wonderful tools we have right now for taking pictures. I took the picture above last week with my Canon Rebel XTi and a Canon 18-200mm zoom. In the days of film, an exposure like this would have been an outstanding event for me--one of my best shots. Now, it's not even the best shot I took of that sunset. I tell you, we're in a golden age of camera equipment. Let's make the most of it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Travel Spot: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When I want to visit my cousins in South Carolina and north Georgia, the most direct driving route takes me right through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a result, I have driven through the park a number of times. It's a truly beautiful place, and is geographically accessible to America's major population centers in a way that many of our other national parks simply aren't. Indeed, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the busiest National park in the country, with as many as 10 million visitors each year. It can get crowded. Still, if you're in the area, you will find a trip through the park rewarding.

The main north-south route through the park is US 441, which enters the park on the north side at Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which is just south of the Vegas-like pandemonium that is Pigeon Forge. The south entrance is at Cherokee, North Carolina, on the Cherokee Nation Indian Reservation. It takes about an hour to drive across the park, and entrance is free. US 441 is open year-round. I took the picture above just last week, on my way to my cousin's house for a funeral. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and although traffic in the park was constant, it kept moving. Because of the reason for my trip, I could only stop briefly in the park, but even a brief stop can be photographically rewarding.

In the past I traveled across the park to see family at holiday times, and so many of my experiences there have been during winter. I thoroughly endorse visiting the park then if you're inclined to go. The park is much less crowded in winter, but the vistas are still beautiful. Below is a photo of basically the same view as the one above, taken in late November of 2007.

There is lots to do in this part of the country. Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and Georgia offer a wide variety of attractions for all ages and interests. If you are in the area, stop by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Park's website is here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Photo of the Day

I caught a beautiful sunset last night, driving home from a funeral in Georgia. The location is just outside of Murdock, IL, which is not far from where I live. As I usually do, I shot with auto-exposure bracketing set for +/- 2 stops, and HDR'd the resulting three exposures, in this case to bring out the clouds. I'd also be lying if I didn't own up to a bit of split toning. Still, it's a nice shot.

Technical details are: Canon Rebel XTi with Canon 18-200 lens at 200mm. Exposures were 1/30, 1/125, and 1/500, all at F5.6 and ISO 400.