Friday, July 30, 2010

Photo of the Day

A foggy morning in North Dakota, June 2009. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Time Lapse test

I have been working hard, as time permits, trying to master the techniques required for good time lapse movie shooting. It's not easy. One set of experiments I'm doing is intended to compare two different methods of generating the time lapse stills themselves. I wanted to explain what I am experimenting with in this post.

Time lapse achieves the result of "speeding up" reality by using a different frame rate than ordinary movies. Frame rates for normal movies vary, but one common rate is 24 frames per second (fps). Using 24 fps as an example, a normal movie or video camera records a frame, or takes a picture if you will, 24 times a second. The movie is then played back at the same rate, showing 24 frames per second, with the result that the action looks normal. Time lapse spreads out the recording of the frames to, usually a frame every couple of seconds or even slower, and then plays them back at the normal rate of 24 fps (in our example), with the result that action is speeded up.* The issue is how to generate the individual still pictures that make up the final film.

There are two basic methods for generating the frames for a time lapse project.  I call them the DSLR method and the video method. I will explain these methods below. Below are two time lapse videos, each produced using a different method of generating the stills. Take a look, and see which you like better. The videos here are just examples of the two methods. Some time soon I plan to find a scene to film, and set up both types of cameras for a real side-by-side comparison.

(Both videos can be viewed in higher quality by following the link to Vimeo)

Time Lapse test: DSLR method from Paul D. Healey on Vimeo.

1. The DSLR method
The most common method for making time lapse films, the gold standard if you will, is to use a still camera, such as a DSLR, to take successive frames. This requires using an accessory called an intervalometer to continuously trigger the camera at the chosen rate. It is the best method, because the DSLR allows for complete control of all aspects of exposure, while providing the high quality pictures that only such a camera can produce. The problem, is that all of those variables, (exposure, aperture, color balance, frame rate, etc.) have to be carefully calculated and controlled during filming. Lots and lots can go wrong, and often does. If you are filming a unique event and you mess up something, like choose the wrong frame rate, you can't go back and re-do the exact same footage.

Time Lapse test: Video method-Clouds from Paul D. Healey on Vimeo.

2. The video method
The video method gets its time lapse frames by taking individual frames from a video you shoot using a video camera. The primary appeal of this method is its outstanding simplicity. With a cheap HD video camera, like the Flip Mino HD or the Kodak Zi-8 (both less than $200.00), and a copy of Quicktime Pro (about $70), you can produce time lapse movies with ease. Simply film your event or scene as normal, and open the video in Quicktime. In the Pro version, you will have the option to export as an image sequence. You can select how many images to generate per second of video (1 frame per second is common) and what format the images should be saved in. This, then, generates a sequence of images equivalent to the sequence of exposures taken with a DSLR. The problem with this method is that the images will not be nearly the quality of images generated by a DSLR.** On the other hand, if you screw up some aspect like the frame rate, you still have the original footage, and can go back to it and do it over.

3. Making the time lapse
In both cases, the sequence of images are joined together at your chosen frame rate (in our example 24fps) and when played display speeded up action. Once again, Quicktime Pro is a very easy method for doing this, as one of its menu options is to open a file sequence. Once opened, it can simply be saved as a movie file.

In another post, I will compare the methods side by side for pros and cons.

*Slow motion video is the reverse. A special camera records what is sometimes hundreds of frames per second, and the resulting frames a are played back at normal speed, resulting in very slow action.

** My next DSLR body (to be purchased soon, I hope) will have the ability to record HD video. This may challenge the image quality difference.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Agony of Choice

Dickens begins his great novel "A Tale of Two Cities" with the famous line, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times." I think this concept applies to buying a camera today. It is the best of times, because there has never been such an amazing plethora of cameras available on the market. It is the worst of times, because how can you possibly choose the camera that is right for you? I sometimes get asked for advice on what camera to buy, particularly in the point-and-shoot range, and my advice often boils down to, "buy something you like within your budget--you won't go wrong."

To take an example, I have always used Canon equipment. It's high quality stuff, and I'm heavily invested in their lenses, reaching back to my film days. So when I go looking for a new camera body, I look at Canon models. If someone wants advice on buying an entry level point-and-shot, I'll recommend Canon as well, because they make excellent cameras in that range too. But if I recommend that someone look at Canon cameras, the question becomes: Which Canon camera?

Back in the eighties, Canon offered five or six different SLR bodies, ranging from amateur to professional, and a similar range of point-and-shoot cameras. Today, Canon offers six different models of their advanced digital point-and-shoot line, one model in their D series, nine models in the compact Elph series, and six models in their A series entry level cameras. That's 22 different models of compact point-and-shoot cameras alone, not counting variations within models, like different colored bodies. In addition, they offer ten different models of interchangeable lens DSLR bodies, for a total of 32 different cameras. Canon is not alone in this. On the Nikon web site I count nine DSLR bodies and 18 compact digital camera models. All of the major camera makes (Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Sony, and many others) are doing the same thing. That's a lot of different cameras, and almost all of them are high quality.

It's nice to have so many options, but it also creates problems. A recent Stanford study demonstrated that having too much choice is a bad thing. It leaves us depressed and bewildered. With too many options to choose from, the fear of making the wrong choice overwhelms us. We're certainly on the verge of that problem with buying cameras.

The solution is to reduce the range of choices to an acceptable level. In my case, my loyalty to Canon products is one way to do that. On a more practical level, it helps to think about the basic qualities the camera you want should have (e.g. compact and pocketable, or long zoom range, or ability to change lenses, etc.), and what features you plan to use (e.g. do you want manual settings, or video capability, or the ability to shoot RAW files?), and then look for the models that combine those qualities.

A final help is that the quality of digital cameras today is so high across the board, that as long as you find a camera that has the qualities and features you want, it's very unlikely you will regret your choice.

(The picture above is of lanterns at a shrine in Nara, Japan. It has nothing to do with the post; I just like it.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Photo of the Day

Some unseasonal heavy rains in November of 2009 resulted in this partially flooded corn field north of Urbana, Illinois. I liked the clouds, and the dessicated corn, and even how the power lines echoed the horizontal lines in the pictures, but mostly I liked how the water created a mirror effect for the blue of the sky.

Canon G9 at 17mm, 1/800 @ f5.6, ISO 100.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Photo Project: Cemeteries

I love taking pictures in cemeteries. There is so much effort at expression, and so much humanity being preserved in stone. And, of course, the opportunity for emotion-laden pictures abounds. Over the last few years, I have been especially drawn to the statues that appear in cemeteries. These, it seems to me, provide a very rich source of interest.
Depending on the religion of the cemetery, and the culture of the people buried there, the statues can represent standard religious figures, or angels and cherubs, or other more obscure or personalized figures. Often, they provide exquisite representations of grief.
I've noticed, in the cemeteries I've visited, that the statues, except for Christ figures, are almost always of women. I don't know what that means, or how that is important symbolically. Is it because women often live longer than men, and so end up doing the grieving?
The representations themselves are usually beautifully done, the product of enormous effort and artistry. Obviously, these were very expensive works of art. What was it that made it so important to be memorialized in this way?
Finally, I am struck by the expressiveness of the faces on these statues. Even as they age and begin to decay the faces often draw you in with their humanity and expression.
I feel the need to say that I approach photographing cemeteries as an entirely respectful exercise. My attitude is that people exert enormous effort, and spend lots of money, to be remembered in this way. Their monument are public for a reason: To be seen and appreciated. To be remembered. In my photography I try to do just that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Travel Sport: Kyoto at night

Visting Kyoto is a must if you visit Japan, and if you visit Kyoto, you should set aside an evening for a walk in Gion. Gion is the legendary Geisha district of Kyoto, and at night its warren of little streets are aglow with lamps advertising the various Geisha houses and clubs. The subject of Geishas is beyond our scope, but suffice it to say that they are not prostitutes, as is rumored in west, but rather highly trained entertainers, who sing, dance, and provide witty conversation along with refreshments.

The Pontocho geisha district is located north of Shijo Dori, between Kiya-Machi Dori and the river. Gion itself is farther east across the river. In both places you will see clubs that are basically private. They only entertain people who have been introduced to them and vouched for through an elaborate system of referrals. Tourists are not able to simply barge in and order a drink.
Guests are usually entertained in individual rooms, and the prices are fantastically expensive, with the cost for the evening often in the range of thousands of dollars. To be the guest of honor at a Geisha party is an honor indeed, and is often used as part of doing business and cementing relationships.
To walk through Gion at night is to view all this nightlife from the outside, bathed in the soft glow of lamps reflected off the omnipresent wooden buildings. As always in Japan, there are beautuful decorative touches everywhere.

Hanamikoji Dori south of Shijo Dori is a particular hot spot for this sort of thing, and can get quite crowded, as the picture below shows. Most of the people there are gawking tourists, watching as the wealthy come and go from their geisha houses.
Information on Gion is available here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Photo of the Day

On a recent trip to Denver, I knew that there were rooms in my hotel with wonderful mountain views. I never get those rooms. I consider the view I got, of Denver's old telephone exchange building, to be a step up from the brick wall view I often get. In fact, the play of sunlight reflections on the geometric patterns turned out to have some photographic possibilities, as you can see.

Canon Rebel Xti with Canon 18-200 lens. 1/250 @ f5, ISO 400. The only post processing was to correct lens distortion and angle of view using the lens correction filter and the perspective crop. Color and exposure are as shot.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Photo Project: Pavement

Pavement may seem like an unlikely subject for photographs, but it can actually have highly graphic qualities that can make for good pictures. Becoming a good photographer involves learning to look all around you, and that includes looking down. The photo above is of a stretch of train platform in Ise, Japan. It has several elements that make for an interesting picture, including different textures of pavement, and fading and cracked paint.
Another good pavement related subject is the various manholes and access points for utilities that exist in the street. These can often can have all kinds of interesting patterns and abstractions. The one above was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in New York City.
Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what it is that you're looking at, as here, with this picture of a sidewalk in Urbana, Illinois. The stark, angled lighting helps make this picture, as it brings out the texture in the pavement, and also give the embedded piece of metal a three dimensional quality.
Finally, don't forget to look for objects on the ground with an interesting appeal. Trash can be more rewarding to photograph than you might think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Travel Spot: Helsignborg, Sweden

Helsingborg is at the very southern tip of Sweden, at the narrowest point of the Oresund, the body of water that separates Sweden from Denmark. Before the completion of the five mile long Oresund bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo in 2000, Helsingborg's ferries were a major crossing point between the two countries.

Helsingborg is one of the oldest towns in Sweden, and was, because of its strategic location, occupied by the Danes at various points in history. Today Helsignborg is a beautiful city of 95,000, with a number of sites of interest, including the Karnan, the local castle, which is still preserved, and a monument to the boyhood home of the 16th Century astronomer, Tycho Brahe. There are also wonderful restaurants and very fine hotels.

Helsingborg's location is such that it is a good gateway to much of southern Sweden. From here you can easily make day trips to the University town of Lundh, or on to Malmo, or head north to the Swedish-American museum in Vaxjo, or to the glass making area of south central Sweden where Orrefors and Kosta Boda, among others, make their exquisite creations.
An especially good time to visit Helsingborg is during the national Midsommer Holiday, which takes place on the Friday and Saturday that occur between the 19th and 26th of June. Even in southern Sweden, the days at that time of year are very long, with the only period of real dark occurring between about midnight and 3:00 a.m. The people of Helsingborg like to celebrate the holiday in style by dressing up in traditional garb,  having community celebrations dancing around the May Pole, and having picnics.

Tourist information on Helsingborg is available here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Photo of the Day

This is one of my favorite abstract shots. It's a closeup of the side of an end loader at a construction site. Something had scratched the paint off. I saturated the colors using curves, but otherwise it's a straight shot.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why does a picture work?

A couple of pictures here from my most recent trip to New York City, back in may of 2006. Here's my dilemma about both of those shots: I like them, but I don't know why. It raises the broader question of why some pictures just work, and others don't.

It's easy to explain why I like some of my favorite pictures, like the ones I pick for my Photo of the Day. For the most part (whether anyone else thinks they're any good or not) they have classic composition, good exposure, and are of pleasing scenes. They work because they're supposed to work; they follow the rules.

But often, the pictures that really excite me are more like the ones here. I like abstraction in certain forms. Scenes like this have a kind of energy that I enjoy. And yet, something very similar will have no energy at all. It will just be a mess.
What bothers me is not so much why I like this, even if others don't. I long ago made peace with the fact that my taste differs from others, and that I need to accept what I enjoy for what it is. What bothers me is not being able to fully articulate what it is about pictures like this that makes me like them.

I was exposed to modern and abstract art as a child, and I always thought I liked it well enough, but I will never forget the experience that brought abstraction home to me. About 20 years ago I was at the Musee De L'Art Moderne in Paris. I came around a corner, and found myself looking at Jean Metzinger's Cubist masterpiece, L'Oiseu Bleu. I was dumbfounded. Viewing it, I felt like an electric charge was flowing through me. I got it. I felt it. I loved it. It's that same sense of energy that I look for in my more abstract pictures.

I suppose my definition for why pictures like these work is the same as Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. In my opinion, the whole reason to engage in a hobby like photography to is to find joy in something you create. Being able to articulate it more than that is probably unnecessary.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Travel Spot: Rocky Mountain National Park

On this independence day weekend, it seems appropriate to highlight a travel destination that is often called "the top of America". I'm referring, of course, to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. In the central Rockies, northwest of Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park contains at least 60 peaks over 12,000 feet, including Longs Peak, which tops out at over 14,000. Its spectacular Trail Ridge Road takes visitors up to and over the continental divide, with plenty viewing spots to take in the vistas. The picture above was taken from just east of the divide.

In spite of the elevations involved, and the extremes of weather, Rocky Mountain National Park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. A winter visit has some challenges, but certainly can be done. Parts of the park are closed occasionally to protecting the mating and nesting needs of certain wildlife, but those closures are well publicized.
The park's valleys are at about 8,000 feet, and are absolutely brimming with wildlife, including bighorn sheep, Elk, and bears. There are hiking trails, campgrounds, and many things to do. The east entrance to the park is just outside of Estes Park, Colorado, which has accommodations, dining, and shopping. That said, Denver is only 90 minutes away, and Boulder is less than an hour, so the park makes an excellent day trip from either of those cities.

I am fortunate to have been to Rocky Mountain National park many times. My mother's family owns a cabin just 50 miles south of Estes Park, and we visited the park often when I was a child. I can recommend it highly, any time of the year. If you are planning a trip to Colorado, you would enjoy visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.

The official park website is here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Photo of the Day

This is a shot of the old town of Villefrenche, France, just over the hill from Nice. The town has a lovely little harbor and is full of quaint alleyways. Worth a visit.

Yes, the picture is HDR. That should be obvious, but in this case the obviousness is intentional. I like how the HDR processing emphasizes the warm pastel colors. Even though the effect is a bit strong, it's what I wanted.

I should also mention that I managed to do HDR processing on this image in spite of having just one JPEG exposure to work with. The trick is to make two copies of the original exposure, and then use Camera Raw or the Lightroom develop module to increase the exposure on one copy and decrease it on the other. It works. It works better if you start with a RAW file. That said, having three or more separate shots at different exposures to work with is still the very best for HDR.