Monday, March 19, 2012

Topaz Star Effects Adds Sparkle to Your Work

Creating sunstars or added stars to your photos just became much easier thanks to the folks at Topaz Labs. Personally, I do a lot of shooting with the sun in the composition and love to create sunstars when possible. When people ask me how I do it, my response has always been, ‘it’s not photoshop, it’s physics’. Well, as of 2012, adding adding Star Effects is simple and easy. Topaz Labs has created a powerful plugin called Star Effects that lets you to not only create sunstars, but add sparkle to just about any type of photo, including adding that ‘catch-light’ to make eyes sparkle, create candle-like effects, and much more. There are numerous presets, as well as manual controls to let you do everything from determining the type of star, number of rays, color, halos, single or multiple stars... Above is a landscape captured at dawn, shortly before sunrise. I decided to give Star Effects a try and was easily able to turn it into, what appears to, be a sunrise capture. Will I now abandon my quest to create sunstars using physics? No, because for me part of the fun is working out composition and ideal conditions including the timing and position of the sun, to create this effect. However, it will get used, and not just for my landscape work. Topaz suite of plugins are the only plugins I use - Yes, I do use specialized software for panoramas and HDR’s. But aside form that, Topaz DeNoise, Simplify, B&W Effects, Detail, and of course their most well known plugin- Adjust, are a few of my favorite things. If you are not familiar with Topaz plugins, check out their website ...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

NEW: One-To-One Mentoring and One-Day Field Workshop

I just updated some of my website, I know it is overdue, to include One-To-One Mentoring and new workshops. This is in response to those emails I sometimes get asking, what’s the best way to shoot X?, how can I improve Y?, how did you capture Z?, or a request for an image critique. Sometimes, if I am around I can respond with a short answer or a link direct to one of my articles but anything more can get time consuming. Of course taking one of my workshops offers the best opportunity to ask a myriad of questions. However, often peoples schedules have little flexibility or they prefer more extensive and personalized help in the area of landscape, wildlife, citiscapes/nightscapes, composition, digital darkroom or image critique... To that end I am now offering both One-To-One mentoring and private One-Day Field Workshops which can be combined.

One-To-One or personalized mentoring, begins with an assessment of your needs and weak areas. Then, through a combination of emails and phone conversations, appropriate electronic handouts, along with image critique, we will work towards improving your skills as a photographer so you can recognize and capture great compositions. Prices start at $199 for consultation, materials, 2 hours of phone time, critique for 20 images.

One-Day Field Workshop at New Jersey and Pennsylvania locations include
the Delaware Water Gap and Waterfalls at Ricketts Glen. These are a single day in the field shooting along with a walk and talk about landscape photography. The shoot includes image critique.

Happy New Year!!!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

On a Personal Note, 53 and Still Going Strong

Last September I wrote a blog titled ’52 and Going Strong’. I had just finished my second cycle of the famed, P90X Extreme Home Fitness program which helped whipped me into incredible shape, and not just for my age. Now, a year later I’ve completed my fourth 90 day cycle of P90X and I am proud to say that I have made further progress, dropping 8 more pounds to 178, the lowest weight I’ve been in about 15 years. Not only that, I broke my personal chin-up record, now 30 reps, and my pushup record, 60 reps. If it sounds like I am bragging, well, perhaps a little. Long ago I was inspired by fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who performed new feats of strength each year on his birthday, I got into the habit of always ending a training cycle on my birthday with the goal of breaking new personal records. However, although I have been doing this since the mid-90‘s my weight had creeped up to an unacceptable 220 pounds, at 5’ 10”, about 4 years ago. Activities like backcountry hiking while lugging my photography gear became too restrictive. Not anymore.

So why am I writing about this in a photography blog? Because being overweight or out of shape is often a major a excuse for not getting shots that are more than a 15 minute walk from the car. In the past two years I got into hiking and camping for my landscape photo shoots. I had captured most of the easy, near the car shots, in my favorite places and began to explore the backcountry to shoot lesser known waterfalls and views from mountaintops. I often refer to these shots as the ones I earned. Being in great shape lets me take on major physical challenges that require up to 11 hours of strenuous mountain hiking. This year I took on my most ambitious mountain hike, the Franconia Ridge Trail up to and across three mountains in the Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. As a matter of fact I did it twice with the second trek earlier this week - blog to follow when I return home. The reward for this effort was unsurpassed views, a very soar body, and a grand sense of accomplishment. There is nothing like standing on top of a mountain you climbed or hiked that is the highest for miles around. These places are also allow for opportunity to shoot 360 degree panorama views.

I guess the moral of all this is if you enjoy nature and want to capture landscapes that have not been photographed by thousands of others, you need to be in good shape to get there. Don’t let age or weight become the excuse. It is possible to whip your body in great shape, even in your 50’s, if you have the time, dedication and discipline to take care of your most important piece of equipment, your body. I do recommend the P90X for that since but it is not simply a way to get strong, it is a way to get super fit - see short success story video from the President of Beach Body who completed and describes the course. A word of caution, P90X is not a program to go from out of shape to good shape, it is a program to take you from good shape to great shape - possibly the best shape of your life. If I can do it, so can you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking for a Workshop....

Workshops are a great way to get out, travel to wonderful locations, enhance your photographic skills, and return home with many WOW shots to add to your portfolio. Of course I offer several Landscape Mastery workshops in some of the best fall foliage locations in the northeast like Acadia National Park, White Mountain Forest and the Delaware Water Gap, which I think are great because of reasons I list in this article. But, not everyone can or wants to visit those locations. So how does one find places that might work for them without extensive google searches? Well, the answer is is relatively new website that has the largest selection of landscape, nature and wildlife photography tours, workshops, courses, holidays and expeditions, not just for the US but around the world. The site has a growing list of workshops and even Photo Tips which is definitely work checking out. You can register now and try it for free with a special introductory offer through June 30, 2011. Give it shot, pun intended.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Windland Smith Rice Awards Ceremony at the Smithsonian

Last week I had the privilege of being honored at the Smithsonian Museum as a winner of the Windland Smith Rice International Awards ceremony - that's me the 3rd from the right in the brown. This contest is sponsored by Natures Best magazine, a big, beautiful quarterly magazine that features some of the finest work in nature photography. The ceremony, held at the Smithsonian, included the category winners as well as those that achieved highly honored status (tie for second). The annual contest included approximately 26,000 entries submitted by photographers from around the world who are either professionals or advanced amateurs. My alaskan bald eagles picture was the winner in Birds category and can see seen or purchased here.

This ceremony also kicked off the annual Windland Smith Rice exhibit at the museum. My work, along with other highly talented photographers will be on display until the fall for all to see. It was indeed an honor to among the winners and an extra special honor for myself since this marks the second win for me. In addition to my two wins, 2008 and 2010, I was also Highly Honored in 2009. It is certainly a special feeling to know my work is being displayed at one of the finest museums in the world. The exhibit helps to inspire other photographers as well as bring public awareness of the beauty and wonders of the natural world.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Laptop Hard Drives - Bigger is Better

Todays laptops are rapidly becoming desktop replacements, especially with Intel’s new line of CPU’s which blow away the performance of older, Core2Duo processors, and with 8GB of RAM (2 x 4Gb) costing less than $100. Although most laptop monitors are TN panels and not ideal for image editing, (color and brightness vary with viewing angle), this limitation is easily overcome by using a quality external monitor like an NEC. The only other significant piece of performance related hardware left is the hard drive.

The hard drive you use affects both performance and storage capacity. Faster drives have faster read/write times allowing the computer to boot faster, load applications and image files quicker, and let you scroll through huge files with less lag. In addition your hard drive may also be used for scratch when you run out of RAM. Super fast SSD drives are the future and in a league of their own when it comes to performance but they command a huge price/GB making them out of the range for most people. For example, a 500GB SSD costs nearly $1,000 while 7200 rpm 500GB Hitachi Travelstar costs only about $60 (as of this writing).

If you are a photographer you likely have a growing library of images and if you prefer the flexibility of a laptop without having it tethered to a external drive to access a huge library then there is good news. Laptop drives now sport up to 1TB capacity although these 1TB drives currently have a slow spin rate of only 5200-5400 rpm (WD and Samsung). Those drives are also thicker, 12.5mm, since they use three platters and may not fit in some older laptops (they do fit in all unibody MB and MBP laptops). However, if you want both speed and storage the best option might be the latest 750GB 7200rpm drives like WD Scorpio Black or Seagate Momentus. These are faster than 1TB drives because although the density is about the same, they spin about 30% faster and that means better performance.

I recently replaced the 320gb, 5400 rpm stock drive in my MBP with a big, fast 750GB,Western Digital Scorpio Black for only $109 from Amazon. Scorpio is WD’s name of their laptop drives while ‘Black’ is their faster, 7200rpm drive (WD Blue spins slower at 5400rpm) Note: replacing the hard drive or the RAM in a Mac laptop does not harm your warranty unless you break something in the process. This drive has extremely positive reviews, especially with MBP owners. The Seagate is also a good choice but reviews have it as a bit noisier and it only has a 3 year warranty while the WD is 5 years. In addition to now having significantly more storage there are also very tangible performance differences. For example, boot times for my MBP, went from about 48 seconds down to about 35 seconds - this is with the new drive storing about 500GB. Software loads about 20-50% faster with Photoshop CS5 opening in as little as 7 seconds the first time after booting up. Also, the ability to scroll through a huge number of large files is noticeably faster as is waking from sleep mode. Bottom line, my laptop, a 15” 2010 MacBook Pro, is just snappier all around.

I used Carbon Copy Cloner, Mac only, to clone my slower stock hard drive. Installation of that drive took under 15 minutes - you can google videos for how to swap the drive. If you think that you don’t need that much space, then think again. Ideally you should have more space than you need if you want to keep your computer snappy. As a drive fills up information is stored closer to the center of the platters instead of the outer portion. Data density is constant but the speed at which the out part of the drive passes by the heads is faster than the inner part so having a fast spinning drive that has plenty of empty space is required for optimum performance. If you are looking to boost performance and store more stuff, consider the 750Gb WD Scorpio Black with a 5 year warranty. Mine is dead silent with only the slightest vibration that I feel in my fingertips. Some user report no vibrations at all but I can’t make that claim. Performance is not all about CPU speed. That is just one bottleneck, the others are RAM and your hard drive. Just check to make sure you do not violate your warranty when upgrading.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Long exposures with a Hitech 4-stop ND

These days many people look to the latest cameras to capture sharp hand held images in low light using very high ISO settings for the fastest shutter speeds. A fast shutter speed freezes motion but there are also advantages to working at the other end of the spectrum - ultra slow shutter speeds. Slow shutter speeds can blur motion and create many desired special effects from motion like moving cars, people, clouds, water....

Experienced landscape photographers know that the photography is not just a technique to record your surroundings. Good composition and light, along with special effects like long shutter speeds can separate your work for others. Long exposures on a windy day can soften clouds; in streams it changes the texture of water in rapids or can capture beautiful leaf swirls in circulating pools of water; on beaches is can create an ethereal look when waves crash against the shore, and for waterfalls it lets you capture a silky look. Long exposures are done by using one or more methods like dialing down ISO to a very low setting, stopping down (unless you desire selective focus), and using a ND or neutral density filter. A CPL or circular polarizing filter, which is IMO the single most valuable filter to own, has the ability to act as a 1 - 1.5 stop ND filter. Screw on filters like a 3-stop ND filter are great but sometimes when the light is strong, and/or you want very long shutter speeds, 3-stops is just not enough. The next move is a denser filter like a 6-stop screw-on, or a very expensive Singh-Ray vari-ND, or using something like a flat 4-stop ND filter from Hitech.

I strongly prefer the flat design of 100x100mm 4-stop Hitech ND, which I have been using for about 2 years. The problem with the 6-stop screw on is that it can get too dark to easily compose or focus, especially in low light with a f/5.6 lens. Also screwing on and off can be a bit of a pain and time consuming. The nifty alternative is something like the SR vari-ND - which I also owned and used for about a year before before settling on a square 4-stop Hitech. The reason I did not like the SR is 1) it does not meter correctly due to the physics of the design so one must use manual mode and take a test shot or two to determine the proper exposure settings for set filters settings - if you are experienced and work quickly and instinctively as I do this can be real drag, 2) it is useless for the widest angle work since it will vignette - that means that you must own two sets of filters to cover all possible focal lengths. A flat filter held over anything has zero vignetting, 3) it is easy to over dial in the density which results in a weird cross pattern from the dual polarizers which is not obvious in the viewfinder. 4) they are very expensive and therefore tricky to justify especially since you will likely need still another filter to handle the wide end, and 5) it is slower to use than simply holding a square filter over the lens or mounted filter.

I shoot a significant amount of waterfalls each year plus many streams and shores... I often use a CPL filter to manage glare when working with water which also helps with about a stop or so of density. If longer exposures are desired but not glare handling I just screw on my six year old 3-stop ND. When I need more the just hold my 4-stop over the lens or filters since there is no fear of vignetting and I can quickly see and shoot both fast and slow shutter speeds without screwing around, (pun intended) or metering things. If I desire very long shutter speeds like 20 - 60 seconds and plan on doing a lot of that type of work I simply can use my Hitech with a Cokin Z-holder so I don’t have to keep holding yet can quickly remove and replace. All my grad-ND’s are the larger Z-size since I prefer to handhold and bigger is easier to hold. This works great when doing things like capturing the pattern of swirling leaves where I want as long an exposure as possible, like a minute or more and using Bulb mode where one needs at least one free hand to end the exposure. However, more often than not I simply use it hand held.

To see what I am doing I first compose (possibly with a CPL or another 3-stop ND screwed on which is plenty of light to see what I am doing). Once I compose I use the AF button to lock in the focus without locking in the exposure - which is what happens when you depress the shutter halfway. I then place the filter over the lens, expose and shoot. This gives me plenty of flexibility to quickly shoot something both fast and slow as well as have my viewfinder bright enough to see. Very simple, very fast, and very affordable, my 4-stop Hitech ND resides in my Tamrac filter belt pack along with my other round filter filters so it is always at my fingertips. At about $70 this filter is nicely priced and will help you produce some very nice captures impossible without it. A few weeks ago as winter came to an end I hiked to Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills on a bright sunny day. Using my CPL filter, ISO 100, and f/13, the water was still moving too fast to get a silky look so I just reached down and grabbed my 4-stop and held it over my CPL and voila, I was able to get my desire speed of 1/10 sec in bright light and a silky waterfall. I own 10 filters, 5 grad-ND, 2-CPL’s (different sizes), 2 ND’s, and a clear filter for foul weather condition. With those I can do just about anything and they are always at my side. I highly recommend this design filter over the alternatives.