Turning over a New Leaf

Red Leaf
Red Leaf, Price Lake, Blue Ridge Highway. | Canon 5D Mark II and 24-70mm f/2.8L @ 70mm | Exposed 1/60 sec. @ f/4, ISO 100

Since it was launched in 2007, I have been an avid user of Adobe’s Lightroom.  One of the things that I have loved about the strengths of the “Develop” module (also called Camera RAW in Photoshop, as they share the same engine) is that I have felt progressively less need to port an image into Photoshop for further enhancement.  This has been especially true since version three onward, as the local enhancements offered by the brush and gradient tool have made selections very easy.  Need to brighten the bride’s face but keep the dress the same value?  No problem, just use the brush.  Photoshop?  Why bother.

I realize I’m likely the last person to get on board the Nik Software bandwagon (especially since even Google decided that it was a good one to hop onto….or guide into its garage, if we continue that metaphor). Because we don’t really know what that acquisition means, re-sellers are steeply discounting the existing lineup of products.  I tried their demo of HDR Efex a while back and was impressed, and decided to roll the dice and pick up their entire collection for Lightroom.  The disadvantage for some people is that this product cannot be launched from inside of Photoshop: instead, you create a copy of the image as a TIFF file and port it into whichever Nik program you’ve selected.  Since I’m avoiding Photoshop for the most part, this approach doesn’t phase me.

For making color images, Viveza 2 and Color Efex 4 are a pretty amazing combination.  Over the last few days I’ve developed a workflow of adjusting my images globally in Lightroom, and then working on local contrast in Viveza.  If I want the foliage of the trees to be more subdued to make the bare branches of the foreground trees to stand out, it’s easy to do.  No more near-impossible layer masks in Photoshop!

Fall Color and Bare Branches
Colors along the highway, Blue Ridge Highway near the Linn Cove Viaduct on October 14, 2012. | Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 97mm | Exposed 1/15 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100

I have posted this image before; while it is similar to the original, the trees stand out more.  And going forward, I can only see advantages to using Nik software whenever my goal is to make tonal changes to ranges of color.  No, I would not suggest using these programs for every image.  But for those that have commercial value, I can see only advantages.  Below is a series of three panoramas.  The first was the result of stitching in Photoshop, but all of the toning had taken place as global adjustments on the RAW files within Photoshop.  Beneath that is the result of toning the image in Viveza 2, and the final photo is the finished product from Color Efex 4.  Each round of processing builds on the previous.

Price Lake, Lightroom Only
Price Lake, Lightroom Only
Price Lake, toned in Lightroom and Viveza
Price Lake, toned in Lightroom and Viveza
Price Lake, toned in Lightroom, Viveza, and Color Efex 4
Price Lake, toned in Lightroom, Viveza, and Color Efex 4

To my eyes, the key differences in these images can be found in the quality of the clouds and the colors and details of the reflection, especially in the treeline.  I don’t think that this software is for everyone, and some may wish to hold off on purchase until Google makes some sort of announcement to detail what kind of support will be extended to current users as they go forward.  For me, this is a worthwhile process for anything I rank three stars or higher, as well as some of my two star photographs.

More thoughts to come, as well as mini reviews of the 5D Mark III and LensAlign’s new software, Focus Tune!

Price Lake

Price Lake, Blue Ridge Highway
Price Lake, Blue Ridge Highway the morning of October 13, 2012. | Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 70mm | Six vertical images stitched, exposed 1/80 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100

About one month after a mutli-day intensive photo trip to the Blue Ridge Highway for fall color, I’m almost done processing my images.  This was a panorama made on our first morning at Julian Price Memorial Park, near the campgrounds.

Fall along the Blue Ridge Highway

Fall color along the Blue Ridge Highway, North Carolina
Fall color along the Blue Ridge Highway near the Linn Cove Viaduct on October 14, 2012. | Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 85mm | Exposed 1/13 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100

Earlier this month we moved a scheduled trip to the mountains up by one week–changing colors in the mountains decided not to follow what we thought were the demands of our own work calendars!  For four days, Summer and I traveled south from Boone, NC and worked out way to Asheville.  The daily changes in the weather seemed to have a direct effect on the colors we were seeing.  They would intensify with each passing night…even the morning after an epic rainstorm that tested the abilities of the rain fly on my ten year old tent.  A couple drips on my head did substitute the alarm I had set on my phone!

Colors along the highway
Colors along the highway, Blue Ridge Highway near the Linn Cove Viaduct on October 14, 2012. | Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 97mm | Exposed 1/15 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100

The two lenses I found myself using most were my 70-200mm for isolating subjects, and my 24mm TS-E for the lens movements that it enables me to make for maximum sharpness and distortion-free framing.  My only regret several days into the trip was that the majority of my panorama photography equipment had been left at home.  For the most part, my move to the 5D Mark II in 2009 changed the way I approached landscape photography; I began to make fewer panoramas as the larger mexapigel count of the camera enabled to me to make large prints from a single file.  However, the wide and short panoramic format is befitting much of the scenery in the area.  Given that my preference for the Blue Ridge Highway and the Smokies in general is car camping, the panorama rails will be sure to make the cut for the next adventure!

More to follow!

Field of Gold or Victoria Crowned Crane?

Victoria Crowned Crane head feathers, Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Scotland Neck, North Carolina. | Canon 7D with 70-200mm f/4L IS and 1.4x TC | Exposed 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100

Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, North Carolina is an impressive facility situated near Rocky Mount, about an hour and a half from Raleigh.  All the birds are captive and so their behavior is relatively tame (or exceedingly so with some birds) but the opportunities for photography can be hit or miss.  It’s certainly a place I would like to revisit, especially to learn more about their breeding program, but photographically it would be best on a cloudy day: the regular hours are 9 to 5, so early morning light isn’t an option, and the “golden hour” in the evening comes long after the park closes!

For a minute there I lost myself, phew…for a minute there

Summer at Lake Crabtree
Summer at Lake Crabtree, Cary, North Carolina, February 2012, Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 121mm; exposed 1/200 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100, Canon Speedlite 580EX II triggered wirelessly

Radiohead references aside, I’ve gone through a number of life changes, both professionally and with respect to lifestyle since I last updated this blog.  I posted last from the coast of Washington as I was in the middle of some significant soul-searching.  I was at a crossroads both professionally and personally.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting images from the last six months–what I have to show for them, that is.  There have been moments that I considered packing up all of my gear and selling it off, closing the shutters on a dream.  Summer, my partner who has seen me through this transition in my life, has expressed at numerous points a concern that she has somehow negatively influenced by passion for photography.  I’m taking stock of life as I recognize that I’m emerging from a state of prolonged shell-shock at the fallout from the end of long and complicated relationship.  She certainly has not stifled my desire to make images of the world.  If anything, she inspires me.

Summer and a cup of tea
Summer and a cup of tea, Savannah, Georgia

I have a backlog of images I would like to share with the world, but first I wanted to share this amazing woman.  I want to be a better person, a better partner, a better photographer, a better communicator, a better citizen of the Earth because I know that my own life is better for having her as such a central part of it.  She shares with me a deep respect for this planet.  A visceral connection to the landscape and the flora and fauna that color it in.

Summer on Sanibel Island
Summer on Sanibel Island, Florida

Early in our relationship we spoke of partners creating space for the other to grow.  I don’t think either of us had any idea just how much space that would mean as my life changed dramatically.  I have a new appreciation for intentional family (to say nothing of my biological family, whom I love dearly).  In many ways, I feel like my vision has been fogged for a months now but it’s beginning to burn off.  Confidence is slowly being restored to my heart, my head, and pumping in my veins.

Summer in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis
Summer in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis

This remarkable woman is the reason that, come August, I can append two letters to my name.  In March she traveled with me to Columbia to defend my M.A. project at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  That project, “A River in Reverse: Asian carp and The Great Lakes” was the result of hours of blood, sweat, and tears over the last two years, but especially the month of February and into March of 2012.  She helped me to reframe some of my darker experiences in graduate school.  She helps me to realize just how amazing life can be.  How fortunate I am to be on this path together.  How blessed I am with the talents I have.

Summer walking on the beach on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Summer walking on the beach on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

I don’t have a crystal ball.  I don’t know with certainty what my future holds.  What I do know is that as I take stock of my life, I cannot help but to feel fortunate and loved at this moment in time.  We’re planning to hand-fast so that we might share the joy we feel about the the peregrinations that we will share over the course of our life together.


My best experience with CPS yet

Hulett House - April 2009
Hulett House – April 2009 | Canon 5D Mk. II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 144mm | Exposed 1/100 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 800.

A brief history of CPS

While I believe that customer service should be important to all businesses great and small, it’s clear that it isn’t always the case.  So when a company does something for one of its customers that is above and beyond all expectations, it’s a good feeling.  It’s also something that should be recognized by the end customer and held up as an example of loyalty-earning service.  There was a lot of complaining two years ago, when Canon Professional Services transitioned into a fee-based, tiered program.

I recall a few people asking why they should have to pay for “better service,” and I scratched my head.  The airlines have had a tiered fee structure for years: pay the base rate and sit in coach, but pay them several dollars more, sit in business class, and get better service.  Pay even larger sums, and sit in first class with an even greater level of service.  I had only been a member of CPS for a year when they changed up the program, but I have to say that I’ve seen only improvements in the past two years.  Sure, Nikon Professional Services doesn’t charge (yet), but that’s in part because they’ve cut costs by firing some of their beloved NPS representatives, such as Carol Fisher, who used to represent Nikon at photojournalism programs such as the University of Missouri.

So, for the past two years I’ve paid $100 per year and received a discount of 30% on repairs plus several equipment loans for evaluation.

The problem

So what is this all about?  Last week I sent in my 550 EX Speedlite that I damaged in a shoot for my Advanced Techniques class in my second semester at MU.  It’s sat on a shelf for close to two years after I melted its diffuser from an hour of firing at 1:1 on manual.  Before asking, the answer is that I wasn’t thinking at the time.  One of the last photographs that the flash helped me to make is at the top of this post.  Both of my 550 EX flashes were mounted on light stands and firing against the white walls of the mixed martial-arts gym, Hulett House.  Of course an hour of shooting at full power will do bad things.  But how bad?

550EX test before CPS repair
550EX test before CPS repair: damaged flash is labeled “B”. Note that the identical units are zoomed to 35mm and firing at 1/16 power. Canon 7D and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens @ 27mm | Exposed 1/100 sec. @ f/4, ISO 100

While behaving normally under E-TTL II mode, my 550EX that I had labeled “B” (for grouping purposes in wireless flash with the Canon ST-E2 transmitter) would only fire on full power in manual mode.  The photo above shows just how badly the Speedlite had been damaged: both are supposed to be firing at 1/16 power, but the only one doing that is the flash on the left.  So, after two years of my 550EX “B” Speedlite working only as a paperweight, I decided to send it in to CPS to be repaired and then sell it to recoup the cost of the repair.

An aside:

I have an odd hang up about broken gear: ultimately, I’d rather fix it and sell it to someone to recoup the repair costs than to let it rot on the shelf indefinitely.  This is what I did a few years ago when I bought an Olympus 21mm lens off of eBay that turned out to be woefully scratched.  I sent it into a man out in Colorado who gave it a new lens coating and then sold it, barely making up for the cost of the lens plus its repair.


Refurbished Canon 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite
Refurbished Canon 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite from CPS

Last Thursday I packed up the 550 EX and shipped it FedEx to Canon’s Newport News, Virginia factory service center.  One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about living in North Carolina is that FedEx Ground will get a package to Canon overnight.  On Friday I approved the repair that was estimated to cost far less than I had mentally prepared for: only $77.

On Monday morning I received an e-mail that the factory was out of parts to repair the (discontinued) 550 EX, so they would be replacing it…with a 580 EX Mk. II Speedlite!  I am completely convinced this would not have happened had I not been a member of Canon Professional Services.

Today, my Canon-refurbished 580 EX Mk. II arrived…and it doesn’t have a scratch on it.  Sure, am I excited that I received a flash that retails for more than $450 by paying $77 and trading in my old unit?  Absolutely.  But it would have been far easier for Canon to tell me that they don’t have parts any more and simply ship my old flash back to me in its damaged state.  This is the kind of thing that makes me think twice about ever switching brands–my loyalty has been earned with time, but it was renewed once more this afternoon when the package arrived.

Well done, Canon.  Kudos on raising the bar for CPS!

Like living on a working river

Dan Egan portrait
Capt. Dan Egan minds the rear of the boat as Steve Gray stands on point at the bow of the empty barge while they push it up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal on Illinois Marine Towing's "Albert C." on October 20, 2010 near Lemont, Ill. | Canon 5D Mk. II and 24-70mm f/2.8L lens @ 38mm | Exposed 1/60 sec. @ f/10, ISO 100 (flash @ -1/3 EV)

A few more frames from my day on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal with Illinois Marine Towing.  I wanted a little “more” both from the portrait of Dan Egan and the image below, with Steve Gray growing in proportion from one frame to the next.  As for the third image, I can’t help but be drawn to photos of flowing water, although usually I try to make it silky, I enjoyed the way that the faster shutter speed froze the large droplets.

(Two more photos after the jump!) Continue reading “Like living on a working river”

Scenes from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

portrait of Antonio Lopez
Antonio Lopez, a deck hand for Illinois Marine Towing, looks on as a barge loaded with components for gasoline passes by on October 20, 2010 on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Lemont, Ill. Perez, who is in his sixth year in the industry, has already earned his steerage license and plans to make a career on the canal. | Canon 5D Mk. II and 24-70mm f/2.8L lens @ 51mm | Exposed 1/200 sec. @ f/3.5, ISO 100.

Last Wednesday I had an opportunity to spend most of a day on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal with three men who make their living pushing cargo up and down the man-made waterway created 110 years ago.  Bill Russell at Illinois Marine Towing, a small barge company in Lemont, Illinois, granted me access to one of the fleet boats as it repositioned barges and other tug boats around the shipyard and up and down a stretch of the canal.  Capt. Dan Egan, Antonio Lopez, and Steve Gray were all very open to the idea, and basically allowed me great access to the work that they do, although there are some safety precautions that certainly limit how much of their job I could photograph from close range.  But I didn’t want to be the victim of a snapped line or fall into the water, either!  Be sure to see the rest of the images after the jump.  And there will be more to come!

Continue reading “Scenes from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal”

The ever-popular silhouette

Walking into the Joe
Walking into the "Joe" (Rosenfield center), Grinnell College | Canon 5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/4L IS lens @ 200mm | Exposed 1/250 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200.

They’re photographic clichés, but everyone I know seems to respond positively to silhouettes.  On my last morning in Grinnell (4 Oct.) I decided to take a (slightly) different tack on an old idea: blend architecture and pictorial, but have architecture remain the subject, not the person walking through it.  To achieve this, everything beyond a few “feet” in the image is soft.

Normally, in a situation like this, either a photographer would make everything in focus by stopping down to maximize the depth-of-field, or would focus on the place where people were moving in and out and let everything else fall out of the DOF.  I wanted to try something a little different.  Does it work for you?