Sunday, July 24, 2011

Post Processing Software Discussion

Up until now I've been using a post processing software produced by Nikon called Capture NX2. At the time I purchased it (an online download from the Nikon Mall) I figured since it was made by the same people who made my camera, it ought to be suitable for my post processing needs. It was also more affordable than the Creative Suite versions of Photoshop. I also did a trial version of Lightroom and did not take to it as far as user friendliness went.

A week ago I broke ranks with the Windows world, a realm I had steadily known since 1993, and went with a Mac Mini for my personal computer. I do not regret the move so far, and don't anticipate I will. While the Mac realm may have its own quirks, the infuriating factor to date has not been what I would occasionally experience with Windows machines and software. I want a machine that just works, that I don't need to spend an inordinate amount of time maintaining because the OS itself is sloppy about how it processes information. I also had heard about a photo post processing software made by Apple named "Aperture". While it did not come with my new Mac, it was an $80 download from the Apple store. I've been using it a week and the more I use it, the more I see that my Capture NX2 (CNX2) days are behind me.

How do the two programs compare? Let's start with photos, then I'll go into the user friendliness comparison. Here's a shot of the abandoned Stuckey's featured in an earlier blog entry. This one was processed with CNX2:

While I like the shot, the more I've studied it the less I liked how it was processed. It's not all software fault, of course, as I'm the one who must make choices when doing post processing work. However, what I have noticed between using CNX2 and Aperture is what's in the toolbox. I'll get into that more in a moment. Meanwhile, here's the same photo as processed in Aperture:

I should mention before proceeding further that you can click on any photo I post in this blog, and it should go to a full screen view for your perusal.

Now, to some, the differences between the two shots above may appear subtle. I would agree they are not vastly different, but when you work closely on a shot during post processing work, you get intimately familiar with its lighting, color, saturation, hue, sharpness, etc. A big part of what I'm getting out of photography in general, and one of many reasons why I like the pastime, is that it trains my eyes to see things that otherwise I might never notice. It's been often said that the devil is in the details. From my standpoint, noticing and reveling in detail is what keeps life interesting. As children it comes natural for most of us; as adults the daily grind tries to beat it out of us, or at least cajole us to confine it to a specific area of study.

I digress. Pertaining to the two processing software differences, the big ones for me are how each one handles burning and dodging abilities. Burning is selectively darkening a photo; dodging is doing the same but lightening the pic. In CNX2, it uses "color control points" where you pick a spot on the photo you wish to alter, and then enlarge or shrink the sphere of influence around that spot before moving on to burning, dodging, altering color intensity, saturation, etc. While it works decently, Aperture accomplishes these same two tasks with brushes, where you can apply the amount you want exactly where you want it, and it can be set to respect edges in case you don't want it to spill over into other parts of the shot.

The second abandoned Stuckey's shot is more lively to me. It gets me closer to what my vision was for taking and working with this shot. I wanted it to appear like a postcard, which typically are sharp shots somewhat overly saturated in color. The irony in this case being the lively colors are contrasted against the decaying structure and gasoline island canopy. I can imagine warping back in time to when this Stuckey's was fresh and new, hired by the owner to take a similar shot for potential customers to see what a desirable roadside pit stop the place is.

The first shot, as processed, doesn't play up that irony as well. It sides more with the gloom of decay and forlorn abandonment. If that's what I really wanted to show, there are plenty of ways to both shoot and process such, including returning to the site under less intense lighting conditions. 

Other differences between CNX2 and Aperture are that whenever a "step" is added in CNX2, you better do all you want to do with that step before adding another one. Otherwise, if you decide to go back and tweak settings in an earlier step, the software undoes all subsequent steps and reverts back to the one you're working on. Until I got Aperture, while I found this quirk mildly bothersome, now I find it downright annoying. Why? Aperture does not punish you like this. If you start out tweaking exposure, contrast, and brightness levels, for example, and then move on down the step sequence, but later decide to go back and tweak with an earlier one, you don't get slapped for not thinking to do it earlier like you would in CNX2. That's refreshing. It also helps me not lose track of where the photo is and what I've done to it. Having my work revert back and forth can break the train of creative flow sufficiently that it's easy to make subsequent choices in perhaps an overcompensating fashion because what you thought you had you may think somehow got permanently changed or deleted.

The main thing I'm dealing with now as far as transiting from Windows to Mac, and from a Windows based post processing software to Mac based, is file handling. That's just a learning curve anyone would face going from one OS to another, but it's pretty noteworthy. Regardless I expect it will become as seamless as my 17 years of Windows experience became.

While many people still regard Photoshop as the standard bearing post processing software, I have yet to feel the pull toward it. Ken Rockwell, in his review of Aperture, states he prefers the Apple software to Photoshop, although he has both. My brother told me about a professional photographer he knows who regards Aperture as superior to Photoshop (and much less expensive!). It would seem Rockwell may lean that way as well. As for me, it outshines the Nikon software and my limited experience with Lightroom. So at this point I don't feel like I'm being held back by not riding on the Photoshop bandwagon.

Rockwell, in many articles he's written for his site, stresses the importance of taking pictures over any post processing software. While I agree with his sentiment, it's also true that great photographers like Ansel Adams loved their darkrooms and found working there just as much a part of their creative process as taking the actual shot. While I don't think it's wise to take crummy to mediocre photos with the idea they can be saved in post processing, I also know that a decent shot that in my mind isn't exactly what I want can get pretty close with our digital versions of darkrooms. What Rockwell likely is saying is for learning photographers like me to spend a lot of time working on how to take a great photo, so that when working with it in post, that's just icing on the cake vs. heroic salvation efforts.

With Aperture, that part just got easier and more enjoyable for me. Your mileage may vary, of course. Happy shooting and processing!


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Color or Black and White?

When I'm out with my camera, I always shoot in color. Sometimes, however, when I'm at my desk doing post processing, working on a selected shot's levels, saturation, etc. it just never seems to fall into place. Not that the shot itself was bad; if I was lucky I managed one with decent composition and exposure. But no matter how much tweaking with contrast, brightness, color warmth, etc., the photo just won't grab me.

Until I realize, by studying the shot more carefully, that color adds nothing to the photo. Typically I make this realization when I see the shot has a powerful shape to it, such as certain architecture may have. Yet if I were to leave it in color, the color itself appears to actually detract from the photo. Here's an example:

This is a shot of an abandoned Stuckey's roadside eatery and filling station along Interstate 20 in Texas, west of Fort Worth. It appears mostly as it would straight out of the camera, with a slight boost in color saturation in post processing. I like the angle and the light, but when I played with this file on the first run-through, no matter what I did with tweaking the color, I kept getting this nagging thought that color was doing nothing for the shot. When that happens I just convert it to black and white to see if I like that, most often I do. Here's the same shot black and white:

When I converted this to black and white and then tweaked with it in my software, it finally grabbed me. It's that "yes!" moment when you feel it in your gut that it finally works, that I wasn't on a wild goose chase after all.
Now some may say that the color shot of this scene works better for them. I would have no objection to that, but if I only get one chance to show you this photo, which way to go? I have to go with my gut, and it said "go black and white" in this instance.

Here's another example, at the same location:

This one is straight from the camera, no PP work at all. I like it, but what I was hoping to capture by stopping to photograph this rotting structure was the desolation of it; the sense of loneliness and faded glory from its heyday of a place of refreshment for road weary travelers and truckers. With the pretty blue skies and bright Texas summer sunshine, that seemed to diminish the desolation aspect. True, the contrast in that respect is interesting: pretty day surrounding a derelict structure. But not what I want. So I did this:

I not only did a black and white conversion, along with a color mask to give the shot somewhat of a sepia look to it, I also cropped it to pull the buildings up closer to the viewer's eye. This shot to me conveys more of what it's about; decay, abandonment, neglect, the brute force of nature undoing the careful manicuring efforts of humans when the building was occupied and useful. While the sky is still pretty, it's devoid of color, so it does not hit me right away as "oh, what a pretty sky!" It takes on a more austere tone, along with color being absent from the overgrowth of weeds and brush. Not to mention the buildings.

Still, you might say, "I like the color shots in both of these." That's certainly your right to feel that way, and I respect it. But I think an overall lesson here is that sometimes, when I'm making decisions what I hopefully wish to convey with a photograph of mine, that the ultimate outcome is met by the viewer with some aspect of common ground. In other words, if you see the black and white shots in these examples more effectively conveying the decay of the scene, I then think my choice to go black and white was justified.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cloudy Day Photography

 Nikon D90, 18-105mm lens @ 18mm, 1/10 sec, f8, 200 ISO

Adult life does not always slot sufficient time for our leisure pursuits, but when it does I like to think I'm still building on any momentum gained during my last allotment. My previous entry or two went on about the benefits I derived by reading Brian Peterson's book "Understanding Exposure". Ever since I've been turning over in my mind, when it isn't preoccupied with more pressing matters, his instruction regarding metering, aperture, and shutter speed.

The overall lesson I'm deriving from that, and from just making pictures in general, is that if I want really good, I mean really technically good (composition is a subject for a different blog entry some day) photographs, then I must drive the camera. Yep, take that dial on your DSLR and spin it on around to "M". Up until recently I was content to set my D90 on "P" mode, thinking with it there I could just concentrate more on composition and not worry as much about metering and so forth. What I overlooked was that, if you think about it, driving the camera manually in a sense is part of composing the photograph!

Can the camera in "P" or "auto" mode read my mind and know what depth of field I want? Can it know how I want to manipulate the light in the scene I want to capture; does it fathom whether I want the shadows to be a bit deeper, or the sky a richer blue, or everything before the lens to be tack sharp (or not)? Of course not. The best it can do in its automatic modes is execute its programming to deal with the dynamic range of light in the scene before it. Programming I had no say in, and which does for certain purposes work just fine, otherwise it will make choices contrary to how I wish the scene before me to be captured.

All right, I entitled this entry "Cloudy Day Photography", so let's get with it. In the city of Fort Worth, Texas, where I live, there's a wonderful place called the Botanic Garden. Within this wonderful place is a Japanese Garden. Ever since visiting this place as a child in grade school, I've loved it. It wasn't until after moving to Fort Worth years later did I visit it again, and have been going back frequently since. The place presents nearly inexhaustible photo opportunities, if one opens one's eyes to look for them. Yesterday my wife and I went there before she had to go on to work. The day was cloudy and chilly, which apparently kept many away from the garden that morning. Suited me fine; less chance of someone walking into my shot at the wrong moment.

Anyway, armed with what I've personally derived from Peterson's teachings, and my never ending curiosity to try something like that out first hand (like during the snow day), I now wanted to see how it, and I, would do driving the camera in manual mode on a cloudy day. I'll start out with pasting in a shot and letting it open up the conversation:

Nikon D90, 22mm, 1/60 sec, f/8, ISO 200

First of all, I'm sure photographers have various opinions on cloudy day light. Yes, it's pretty even. Sure, it can also be kind of flat. It can make everything appear cooler instead of warmer. And so on. What I've also seen, in looking at many other photographs done on cloudy days (some of those being my own), is that even with flat, even light, the photographer managed to produce a flat, dull photograph, sometimes even with blown out highlights! While dynamic range is less extreme on a cloudy day, it's still there, as the above photo illustrates. A slate gray sky, fairly bright, luminous greens of freshly sprouted spring foliage, white buds, deep shadows beneath the trees and shrubs, and a splash of red in the center for good measure.

One might ask, "How could you blow that exposure?" Easy. Just set the camera on P or A and fire away. You could either blow out the sky, or everything will be underexposed (or both, save the sky). You might get lucky and get a shot like above, but why chance it? "But today's DSLRs are so much more sophisticated!" I hear someone reply. "It shouldn't have any problem with a scene like that." Well, often, that's right. You point and shoot and everything looks pretty decent. Even so, I found something lacking more often than not when I shot that way. If I wanted a point and shoot camera I wouldn't have plunked down a healthy chunk of change on a mid-range DSLR. If I want a digital camera that has a great sensor that responds very well to doing SLR photography the old fashioned way, looks like I'm on the right track.

Sometimes I must wonder if the complexity of a modern DSLR is overly complex. My wife complains about this with her D3000. She picked up photography years ago with a film SLR of 70's vintage. Adjusting to digital is an uphill climb from the start; now we throw in autofocus points and different types of metering selections and Active D lighting and white balance selections and...

Not to say that any of that is worthless or should be disregarded. Of course not. I must wonder, however, if the tendency is to rely too much on all those features. I know when I did I wasn't getting as consistent results as I now think I am by driving the camera manually.

Nikon D90, 26mm, 1/25 sec, f/8, ISO 200

The above shot was one of my favorite from the day's outing. For a scene void of people or animals, it still has motion to me. The one point perspective of the deck and rails leading the eye forward, the dark tree arching sharply overhead, other trees nearby sculpting the gray sky with curving trunks and branches interspersed with fresh green leaves, the interplay of light and shadow. This was one of those "ah ha!" moments where I had to capture it pretty fast before someone walked into the scene. Fortunately I had already shot nearby under similar light so I didn't need to do much tweaking of the camera before I composed and fired.

Nikon D90, 62mm, 1/25 sec, f/8 ISO 200

To get the above shot (another of my favorites from the day) I clamped my little Joby Gorilla Pod tripod to a deck railing. Would have been real dicey to use the slower shutter speed listed above and hand hold the camera. I made several shots during this outing using the Joby and reduced shutter speeds. I think this approach allows me to capture the right amount of dynamic range for the scene to show well as a photograph. No HDR with its multiple exposure bracketing required.

I've been at this DSLR photography game for over a year now, and I have yet to see any need or desire to delve into HDR (high dynamic range) techniques to get the degree of dynamic range I'm after in my shots. HDR has its uses; it's especially useful for interior shots of buildings to make such photos look their best, as for real estate advertisements, etc. Otherwise I see a lot of overly applied HDR technique, and it looks awful. More like a cartoon than a photograph. In the shots I've pasted here I did do a little post processing of light levels and color warmth/saturation, but that's about it.  I only mention HDR at all here because sometimes I wonder if it's used as a compensation for an inadequate understanding of good exposure techniques.

Nikon D90, 26mm, 1/50 sec, f/4, ISO 200
This was one of the first shots I took upon entering the garden. I just now noticed the wider aperture setting of f/4 (isn't metadata handy?); had I to do it over I'd go with f/8. Regardless it came out all right; the overcast day saved it. Had the sun been out, just slightly, this shot would have likely been overexposed at 1/50 of second at f/8. I like how the shot came out, as the trail that winds beneath the trees is clearly visible, yet in the diffuse light cast by the overhead canopy of greenery. The tree trunks and branches overhead also etch interesting patterns against the sky. This shot is admittedly a bit busy, but hopefully not overwhelming. Lots for the eye to explore, which is what being in this garden is all about. 

One other aspect about the above shot; it may not be outright noticeable, but to me this shot has just a little less color depth than the others taken with the aperture set to f/8. Hmm...think I'm onto something?

In summary, I'm finding that cloudy day photography can be rewarding, if one works at it. For all the shots shown here I did post process each one, but as already stated it mainly entailed color warmth and saturation adjustments, minor cropping, and a little unsharp mask if it seemed necessary. Some folks get all hung up over wanting to get the perfect shot "in camera". All I can say at this point is that I'm out in bright light making shots and looking at a dinky LED screen to see (aka "chimp") what I just shot to see if I'm even in the ballpark of where I want to go. Once I'm in the comfort of my home, if the shot was good I then have more ability and desire to "buff it out" to my liking. Meaning that when I'm in the field I'm mainly concentrating on technically capturing well what my mind's eye is telling me is an interesting scene to photograph. The ever intricate dance between artistry (composition) and technique (driving the camera).

Finally I'll leave you with the following shot. For all of the shots where gray sky is visible, all of them posed the potential to blow that part of the photo out, yet because I'm learning how to meter and manipulate the camera manually, I think I'm gaining ground on not only preventing this from happening, but obtaining more pleasant results in all three phases of photographic lighting; i.e. low and mid tones, and highlights. It's an ongoing learning adventure, one I hope to pursue for many years to come.

Nikon D90, 30mm, 1/50 sec, f/8, ISO 200

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Just For Fun

Occasionally I just want to post random photos here for grins, when the mood so strikes me. Today is one of those days. If there's something educational about a shot I might mention it, otherwise I'm just putting my feet up for this go-around.  :-)

This snap occurred as part of my continued efforts to refine what I discussed in yesterday's blog entry about exposure and shooting manually. In just one day we went from sub freezing weather and snow to temperatures in the 50's and a huge melt-off of the white stuff. So much for getting more practice shooting in snow. Doesn't last long in Texas!

Nikon D90, 38mm, 1/15 sec, F8, ISO 200, circular polarizer

My neighbor's place across the street, bathed in golden hour light. I like the play of shadows on the pierced block wall of the carport and brick:

Nikon D90, 62mm, f11, 1/100 sec, ISO 200, circular polarizer

Big Digger in the snow:

Nikon D90, 25mm, 1/160 sec, F16, ISO 200

I will mention one thing I learned since yesterday when the above shot was taken. This evening I was reading in Bryan Peterson's book, mentioned in yesterday's blog, about "Blue Sky Brothers" and "Mr. Green Jeans". He discussed how he often meters a blue sky in order to get stuff like snow to show as truly white vs. dirty laundry gray. This is what I was doing a lot of yesterday, and was pleased how white my snow shots were turning out. My eyes of understanding regarding metering have been opened wider due to this...light metering determines color correctness! So, that means I still need to more deeply grasp how this ties into white balance pertaining to digital photography. The learning adventure continues!

When you think about "Blue Sky Brothers", it makes perfect sense. Aside from direct sunlight striking an object, all other light one sees outdoors largely originates from the blue of the sky. Next time you're outdoors on a sunny day, look at a shadow on the ground, particularly if it's a building casting a deep shadow on light colored pavement. It will have a blueish color cast. In my first shot above, some of the remaining snow on the ground has a bluish cast to it, whereas the snow in sunlight is bright white. I don't consider this an error in exposure, as now my eye picks out this blue cast in shadows all the time whenever I'm out in sunny weather. The time of day in that shot also matters, as in the evening the sky above will tend to become more deeply blue as the sun sets. Remember my first blog entry and the early morning dawn in San Francisco? That sky had a rich deep blueness to it, and the sun was at least 15 minutes or more from rising.

Well I said this entry would be mainly for fun (learning is fun, right?) so back to random fun picture posting:

 Nikon D3000, 46mm, 1/250 sec, F8, ISO 100

My first DSLR was a Nikon D3000. Much maligned by photography gear reviewers and critics, it can be coaxed to turn out decent shots like the above snap. This house is part of a development in Austin, Texas known as SOL, or Solutions Oriented Living. All of the structures are modestly sized, modern in style, and are said to be significantly easier to heat and cool than more conventional structures with similar square footage. By the way, Peterson calls F8 a "who cares" aperture setting, in that if the focal plane is pretty evenly distant from the camera, and you want what you're shooting to be decently and evenly sharp, "who cares" about aperture (as long as it's somewhere between F8 and F11, he adds). Leave aperture set at your preferred "who cares" spot and then set and adjust the shutter speed for the light. Kind of like the admonition given to journalist photographers: "F8 and be there!" In the shot above I was still in my P Mode phase of photography, which in this case (as in many other shots I've made) it did just fine. It often does; I'm merely after even more precise control over what I choose to shoot, so my latest interest in refining "going manual".

Nikon D3000, 24mm, 1/100 sec, F5, ISO 100 -0.67EV

One of my favorite shots (above) from last summer's afternoon outings with the D3000. It was hotter than hell during this time, so trips to Fort Worth's Water Gardens was always a great choice for a bit of relief from lingering late afternoon swelter. Notice in this photo how the water foam in sunlight is white, and in the shade it has a blue cast. Hmm...I'm now curious to return to this spot and meter "Blue Sky Brothers" and then reshoot this scene to see if the water foam can become more evenly white. Might have to wait awhile for the light to approach how it was here, as the sun angle is different this time of year. Might be the shaded blue water will have a blue cast no matter what. Only practice and trial will resolve it for me.

Nikon D3000, 50mm, 1/125 sec, F5.6, ISO 100, -0.67EV

Shooting neon signs is fun. The Motel Capri sign in my first blog entry was my first night attempt at neon sign shooting. The sign above is for Leddy's western store on Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, Texas.

Another sign shot:

Nikon D90, 58mm, 1/320 sec, F5, ISO 200

The late afternoon sun made this shot nice and warm. It also makes me almost forget how chilly it was in Old Town Auburn, California, where the California Bar resides.

One last random photo and I'll call it a night for this go-around of Just For Fun:

Nikon D3000, 200mm, 1/500 sec, F5.6, ISO 100, -0.33 EV

If you ever hear anyone bad-mouthing the Nikon D3000, just show them this shot.  :-)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow Shooting

Nikon D90, Nikkor 18-105mm lens at 18mm, f/16, 1/100 sec shutter speed

Lately I've been reading Bryan Peterson's book "Understanding Exposure". What a treasure trove of great information to be had in one place! Even in the short amount of time I've spent reading it, I will forever credit Mr. Peterson and this book for changing my understanding of photographic exposure, and for favoring manual metering of most scenes vs. relying strictly on the camera's auto selections, such as when "P" mode is selected.

I think every learning DSLR photographer must undergo similar rites of passage. You get a new camera, you go out shooting, and upon uploading your snaps to your home computer you find yourself delighting in some, unimpressed by others, and downright frustrated by yet other shots. You might think, "Why isn't such and so photo sharp enough? I mean my Nikanon DXL2011 has auto focus, auto white balance, auto exposure and metering, and even a kitchen sink that washes my why can't it can't nail this shot?

That's just it...cameras don't nail shots, photographers do. I had to learn that, having once thought P mode could carry me through most any shooting requirement. On my particular Nikon D90 it certainly does do a great job a lot of the time, but after reviewing results from more recent photo outings, and upon reading Peterson's book, it became stark clear to me how I was limiting my growth as a photographer by not having a better grasp on the critical aspect of exposure, and by not taking the reigns of exposure control from the camera's auto programming and into my own hands.

So I'm reading Peterson's book and he's talking about aperture settings, how it can be used for what he calls creative exposure, meaning it's not just about getting exposure technically correct, but creatively correct. Huh? Yes, learn how aperture controls the outcome of a shot so that it can be used creatively to convey what I, the photographer, am seeing in my head when I stop to take a shot. How cool is that?

In the particular section of the book where he's discussing this he shows a snow scene. Well, it just so happens in my neck of the woods that, right in the midst of our metro region gearing up to host Super Bowl 2011, we got hit with a blast of snow and ice. Stuck at home because my workplace was closed, what better way to spend the day than taking my camera out into freezing weather and applying what I've learned in Peterson's book? Yes, us photogs are a crazy lot. We look outside the windows of our nice warm homes, see frigid air whipping around the snow, and say "Let's go shooting!"

Peterson discussed how smaller aperture openings combined with correct shutter speeds can assure that everything in the viewfinder will turn out tack sharp on film or digital media. Ah ha! This was one of my concerns, as I often like to shoot a landscape scene or other setting where I like everything in focus, as contrasted to when I want to draw the viewer's attention to a singular object via narrowing the depth of field to it, with everything behind it blurry. In a particular sharp snow shot in his book he speaks how he did it; he first metered the blue sky, lowered the camera and recomposed, and then shot his tree full of snow and red berries.

Metered the sky? What? Okay, I need to go outside and try this, I told myself. So I did:

By golly, look at that! Not only is it a pretty sharp photo, there's no blown highlights, another aspect of concern I had from my episodes of P mode shooting. Well, yes, it's harder to blow highlights on overcast days, but it can be done. Trust me. :)

While we're on the subject of shooting in the snow, some other things that have bugged me about snow shooting is having photos of snow scenes come out either where the snow is blue or dull gray. Part of that is likely a white balance issue, but I also must think it ties back into properly metering the scene from the start. Point and shoot cameras and P mode on DSLRs will simply guess, whereas I as the photographer must learn to optimize the light I have, such as I touched on in my last blog entry. So here I was out shooting today, full of Peterson's wisdom, and I'm noticing not only am I getting pretty sharp shots with few blown highlights, the snow looks like snow and not like dirty laundry or blue toilet bowl dye:

I was eager to apply this new found knowledge to when the sun was out, using perhaps a "sunny 16" aperture as a basis and then metering each shot manually from there. Well, the weather cooperated and the skies began clearing. Back out into the cold for more experimentation! Ain't being a learning photog grand?

Well, that was muted about full bore sun on snow? Man, that could really blow all to pieces if I don't meter it right! Right?

Hot dog, look at that! This is fun! I think I'll keep going, see if I can get any measure of consistency:

This next one looks like something Ken Rockwell would shoot:

How about something a little more conventional?

Although around these parts, that's not a real conventional house. Architectural opinions aside, I think I'm onto something here. Not perfect, yet, but I'm certainly much more satisfied with how these type of shots are doing than when I was mostly a P mode shooter.

So I'll leave you with one last snow shot from a fun day out in the cold:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Right Light Makes the Photo, Wrong Light Breaks It

Over the holidays I was fortunate to visit San Francisco and Northern California. The days leading up to my departure from Cowtown were met with much anticipation, as this was to be my first trip to the Golden State as a learning DSLR photographer. While I've found many wonderful shooting opportunities in Fort Worth since embarking on my DSLR journey early last year, it's always nice to get a change of scenery, which naturally provides shooting challenges I may not have previously encountered in my home state and town.

Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of San Francisco can fathom that it is a very photogenic place. Simultaneously, many of these same photogenic spots have been shot countless times, and may appear to some as cliche' upon initial viewing. To me, what makes the difference between mere cliche' and an interesting photo is not only composition, but how the scene is lit.

Upon arriving in Frisco, I was greeted by slate gray, cloudy skies, with the threat of a Pacific storm due in by evening. Not exactly the deep blue skies and crisp sunshine I was perhaps secretly hoping for. What to do...keep the camera sheathed in its bag and wish the clouds away? Nope...just look for good light where it can be had. And at times that means you need to wait for it, I've found.

Here's an example. Outside my Lombard Street motel window, across the street, was this shot:

Technically, it's a decent shot. The even lighting from overcast skies doesn't make it easy to blow the exposure. But, as lit, it strikes me more as a snapshot than a photo that has some measure of attention grab.

Here's the same scene, shot just a few hours later:

This scene interests me a lot more than the previous shot. The red glow from the neon not only bathing the curving bay window of the apartment building, but also how it accentuates the cornice over the window. The curtains of the upstairs apartment being open and the interior lit, gives the viewer a glimpse of San Francisco residential life without appearing vouyeristic. The clutter on the roof muted by the night sky. The illuminated snowman and icicles on the balcony give away what time of year the picture was taken. Overall, while the composition of this shot differs little from the first, it holds my interest far more, all because of how it is lit.

What I like about this shot is that it has sort of an Edward Hopper painting ambiance to it. If you're unfamiliar with Edward Hopper's work, go to Google images and check it out.

The first night and following morning provided me another lesson regarding lighting, and from the same motel window:

This isn't really a good snap; mainly a grab shot as I was testing how it would look without a neutral density filter over the lens. At the time I did not know I'd be using this shot as part of a blog entry. You just never know. As is, the shot has some visual interest, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Frisco urban streetscapes, but it is nothing compelling.

So how about a different time of day?

Early morning (predawn) is a great time to shoot. Same goes for evening after sunset. I've had fun with other shots in the past where I've attempted to balance the deep blue of dusk with artificial lighting. Cameras do cool things with both. No less at dawn, either.
This still is no fantastic scene, but if I had only this or the one above to show to someone, or be judged by in a contest, this latter one would be a no-brainer entry.

Take-away lessons? Within the same 24 hour period, I managed to get all of the photos above. While my first day in Frisco was cloudy followed by rain, the next day dawned clear. The clouds and rain kept me and my D90 indoors, but night and the following morning turned otherwise pedestrian shots into keepers. It appears patience and timing are integral aspects of becoming a better photographer.