Time to Learn

On the Big Magnolia LeafLast week, someone left a comment on one of my posts, saying – don’t give up. You’ve got good stuff here. That was the second such comment I had heard in the week (the other one was from my very kind sister).

They were right, of course. The reason I even started this blog – they day I bought my first DSLR, almost 4 years ago – was to force myself to keep learning. The problem was, it’s relatively easy to learn lots of new things quickly when you’re a beginner; the more experience you get, though, the fewer the a-ha moments. And so I abandoned my blog. In retrospect, I pretty much stopped learning when I did that. Shame on me!

Not that all of this time has been wasted, though. I continue to take a picture a day, as I have for 1,357 days; all that practice serves as a placeholder… but it’s time to start learning again.

With that in mind, I chose this morning to spend some time learning how to use the $104 macro ring flash that I bought last month, based on some outstanding reviews on Amazon. The price was a steal – the Canon version of this flash costs $500. I had a cheapo ring flash that I bought a few years ago for about $35… it wasn’t even worth that.

So, I spent some time reading up on using a ring flash online, and watching this Bryan Peterson (PPSOP) video: http://youtu.be/7Qko6TQR8IA . This was the first time I had ever heard someone say – go ahead, use a flash even if there’s natural light! That was soooo liberating! What it meant to me was — I didn’t have to try to use a tripod in awkward positions or give up my morning caffeine in order to hold the camera stock-still.

First I tried it out on some leaves that I had picked up the other morning and brought inside:
Autumn Colors
Then I went for a walk to see what I could find outdoors. I wasn’t disappointed! My take included the water drops on the leaf (from a Big-Leaf Magnolia tree) at the top of this post, and this “changing seasons” shot:

Changing Seasons

From autumn to winter.


One thing to note, which is pointed out in the video, is that using the macro ring flash will make the background really dark, like so:

A rose, after the first snow

A rose, after the first snow

This will all be good to know as we march into winter. There should be plenty of miniature things to photograph inside, and when the weather is right, I hope that this lighting will make snowflake photography easier. Fingers cross!

(Technical note: I used the Canon MP-E 65mm lens, which has almost no depth of field, so it was necessary to use very small apertures (e.g. f/16). The mantra on the video is: 1/250, f/22 – but that was for his lens, not mine!)


Catching some rays

Now that summer is finally here, we’re seeing some sun and lots of color! I’ve decided to embrace the sun rays and make them part of my pictures while I can. (Here in upstate New York, winter will be here before we know it.)

I took this picture yesterday morning and posted it on Facebook and Flickr:

Morning at the Plantations

Good morning, sunshine!

Several people have asked – how did I get the sunrays on the dew drop? Did I use a special lens or filter? Did I use any Photoshop trickery? Nope. It was just my Canon 100mm macro lens, with the camera in aperture priority mode, set at f/10.

The secret is: point the camera at your subject, towards the sun. The dew drop will contain whatever is behind and above the subject, and the sun rays will reflect off the edges. You can even see them in the viewfinder!

The second secret is: crop the heck out of the resulting photo.

Here’s another, taken this morning:

Morning Bluebells

Sparkly bluebell

Fun in the sun doesn’t mean just macro, though. I’ve had some fun with sun rays in some wide angle shots recently, too.

Sunshine on Tower Road

The world is aglow

For this type of shot, you should set your f stop as high as possible (i.e. use as small an aperture as possible). In this case, the settings were f/22 (that’s the highest f stop for this lens), ISO 250, shutter speed 1/30.  The key was to be careful to not overexpose the shot; when I got home, I loaded it into Lightroom, upped the shadows, and sharpened it a bit.

I hope this inspires you to catch some rays of your own!


I’m taking a class through PPSOP called “Photography Magic II”. This week’s lesson included instructions on making cinemagraphs. Here’s my first attempt:

Follow the bouncing ball

Follow the bouncing ball

It took me most of a day – partly because I was having problems with Photoshop crashing – but I learned a ton, especially about video capabilities in Photoshop (and in my camera – it was the first time I’ve taken video with it)!

The output is an animated gif, which won’t play in Flickr*, Facebook, or any of the other places I usually share my photos… so I’m not sure if I’ll spend a lot of time on these in the future. The cinemagraphs on this site are pretty inspiring, though… and if I ever want to do another, at least now I know how!

*they actually do display on Flickr if you click through and display them full size, but I don’t think a lot of people bother to do that.


Update! Here is a more successful attempt at this technique. I still need to find out how to make it less jumpy from the end to the start:catForever

Photos Only

When I bought my first DSLR, in November 2010, I started this blog as a way to document the things that I was learning about photography. I’m still learning plenty, but there are photos that I’d like to share that don’t necessarily have any words of wisdom to go with them.

So, I’ve started another blog. You can find it at http://btfotos.com. My goal for the new blog is to just share pictures, and keep the words to a minimum.

I’ll still update this blog when I learn something and want to share it.

I hope you’ll visit the new site!


Life in 3D

I’ve been taking a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) on Archaeology at coursera.org for the last month or so, and have really been enjoying it. Each week’s lesson includes a set of videos, readings, exercises, and a quiz. For this week’s topic, “What do you do with what you find?”, I chose an exercise that involved installing and using a (free!) 3D modeling program called 123D Catch.

The estimated time for the exercise was 2 hours, and I suppose I could have stopped after spending  just that. But of course I needed to create more than one model, and then I needed to tweak-tweak-tweak. I’m guessing I have about 14 hours into it by now.

The best of these models was of a sundial at the Cornell Plantations. Here’s a screen print of the output. The software provides an embed code to publish a navigable version on your web site, but the embed doesn’t work on wordpress.com… so here’s a link to the manipulable 3D:  http://www.123dapp.com/3dp-Catch/Sundial-3/1556978 or you can watch a video of it at http://youtu.be/YVYUbeKO1pQ.

Sundial 3d screenshot

Sundial Screenshot

To create the model, I took 64 shots from about 5 feet away from the sundial. The software has an option to show the camera angles:

Sundial screenshot with cameras

Sundial screenshot with cameras

There is also an option to manually stitch the photos, so if it’s missing something, you can let it know where to get the information. The automatically generated version of the sundial was pretty good, but the smaller items required a lot of manual stitching.

The end result was a little like a Quicktime VR with a lot more detail, and a little like a video game. Lots of fun, in a nerdy way.


Like many photographers, I take lots and lots of pictures that get deleted (probably 5-10 deletions or more for every keeper), and many more that never make it out of Lightroom. I keep some of those because I like them, but there’s a problem that I just don’t know how to deal with — too much noise, perhaps, or something that’s in the frame that I can’t get rid of.

One such shot I took in spring of 2012. I loved the subject – magnolia blossoms reflected in the chapel window – but the angle was just too awkward. You can see the original at the bottom of this post. Because of the placement of buildings and trees, shooting it straight on meant that the bottom of the window appeared to be twice the size of the top; so I took a longer shot from the side. I’ve revisited the photo a few times over the past year but wasn’t able to do much with it.

In my web wanderings today, I read about the new “upright” feature in Lightroom 5. Like magic, this feature modified the photo to look (mostly) like it was taken straight on! Here it is:

Sage Chapel Magnolias

“Upright” version

While it’s not perfect – for example, you can see more levels of detail in the bricks to the right of the window, and the circular window on top is a bit distorted – it does an amazing job of modifying perspective.

The steps I used in this example were:

  1. Under Lens Corrections / Basic, click Enable Profile Corrections and Constrain Crop
  2. Still under Lens Corrections, under Upright, select Full.
  3. Under Lens Corrections / Manual, I used the Aspect slider to make the window look wider.

Here’s the original:

Sage Hall Magnolias


Note that using the tool requires losing parts of the image around the edges, but this shouldn’t be a problem if the original has enough fluff to compensate.

The Upright tool works similar magic on uneven horizon lines, photos taken with wide angle cameras, and more. What a great addition to an already great program!


The new Photoshop was released yesterday, as part of the new subscription-based Creative Cloud. Because it seems that Adobe is holding all of its users hostage by making them pay a monthly subscription for software titles that could previously be bought off-the-shelf, I had considered making a statement by not continuing to buy Adobe. But the new Photoshop CC has that one to-die-for feature: Camera Shake Reduction.

And of course I had to test this feature out on a shot that I took on Saturday. All of the wildlife photo opportunities that have come my way recently have been a major test for my 70-300mm lens: those hawk, fox, and heron babies are generally kept away from the paparazzi by their watchful parents. So, I’ve been zooming in as far as possible, which unfortunately leads to camera shake. (Either that, or I get so excited by the photo opportunity that I can’t keep still! I’m not sure which of these is the cause.)

Here’s the shot that I took Saturday – since the shake is difficult to notice in the small size displayed in a browser window, I’m presenting the “unshaken” version:

Heron Landing

Heron Landing

Look a little closer. The pre-camera-shake-reduction-filtered version is on the left; the processed version is on the right.

before after

The verdict? Yes — the shake goes away, differently than if I had just sharpened the photo. The result is a bit more noise and some loss of detail. Do I think it’s worth it? Yes… and it will be more worth it once the other plug-ins that I own are updated to work with CC!

Flying higher

I spent yesterday afternoon at a rodeo, and had a really fun time, but photographically things didn’t turn out so well. I spent much of the afternoon trying to get a good panning shot of a nice graceful horse flying across the arena, but ended up with a lot of close-but-blurrys. Action shots are tough for me! I get so excited when it’s time to snap the shutter that I move the camera. (I may break down and subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud just so that I can get that camera-shake reduction feature in the new Photoshop!)

Today I planned to take some nice, slow flower macros, but was drawn in to the excitement of watching the baby hawks fledging from the light towers over the fields nearby. I got a few nice standing-still hawk photos, but the birds were far away enough that I would have to crop quite a bit. I was just about to head home for dinner when “Big Red”, the mother, decided to deliver some food to one of the babies who was stuck in a tree.

Big Red with chipmunk

Big Red Delivery Service

There it was, my panned shot! And I took it without thinking twice. If you look closely, you’ll see her talons clutching a chipmunk.

As a bonus, I caught this shot as Big Red flew overhead moments later:

Big Red and the Chipmunk

Look! Up in the sky!

Two keepers in the space of about 5 minutes. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ll take it.

If you’re interested, there’s a bird cam on Big Red (and hubby Ezra)’s nest. Two of the three babies have fledged (one of them has not managed to make it back to the nest, but is alive and well). When I checked just now, there were 2133 viewers – this family has quite a following!

One more shot to leave you with. While I was waiting, waiting for some hawk action, a mother skunk and her two babies emerged from the bushes across the street and went food shopping in the garden where I had just taken my flower photos.

3 Skunks

“To get to the other side”

Timing is everything.


The picture within

In my web wanderings last week, I came across this article which talked about the virtues of using the “Tonal Contrast” filter in Nik Color Efex Pro.

I used this newfound knowledge yesterday on this shot of a small waterfall near my office, taken from underneath my umbrella while walking through the pouring rain.

Tower Road Waterfall

The enhanced version

As part of this experiment, I also used the “Detail Extractor” filter. Each of the filters made a significant difference; used together, they provide rich, colorful detail.

For comparison, here’s the original:

The "before" image

The “before” image

My guess is that some people might prefer the unprocessed “before” look. I kind of like the Thomas Kinkade look, personally – at least for this kind of shot.

I was already a big fan of the Nik collection – this just gave me one more reason to love it.