Saturday, March 31, 2012

Is it Art or Is it Photoshop?

I've noticed that a certain segment of photographers think that Photoshop is cheating.  They proclaim "I shoot everything in JPEG because a good photographer gets it right in the camera.  They casually mention that they don't manipulate their photos.  They brag that they don't "Spray and Pray" - they take a single shot at the exact peak moment so they can spend their time shooting instead of sitting behind a computer.

These attitudes made perfect sense last century when film was still used.  Back then, if your camera wasn't level, the "water in the lake would all run out of the side of your photo".   It was difficult to crop photos - especially slides.  It's easy to forget that the majority of photographers paid a photo lab to make many of the decisions that are now made in Photoshop.   If you look at old publications you will see that one of the biggest changes that came with digital was that standards have gone up. 
I spent some time today looking at photos I took on a vacation last year.  I wouldn't be able to afford the number of shots I take if I still used film.  I take vacation photos for many reasons.  I take a photo of my car and a street sign near it so I can find it again later.  I may take a photo of a map we pass so that we have it available later when we need it.  Many of my photos are simply visual notes to jog my memory.  I never intend that the majority of my photos should ever be considered art.

I came across a vacation  photo today and tried to remember what had caught my eye as I made the exposure.  It was a night time shot that was made at the limit of my equipment and ability without using a tripod.  The ISO was 1600 and the shutter speed was 1/8 second.  Most of the image was severely underexposed and portions were overexposed.  Digital doesn't have the dynamic range to capture this scene.  If I wanted to photograph this street, I should have used HDR. 

Photomatix Pro does tone map single exposures.  I decided to see what it would do with this image.  The before and after image is shown at the start of this article. Compare the two.  Is it art?  It certainly doesn't look like a realistic photo.  But in many ways it looks more like the scene I photographed than the original image does.  My eyes saw more of a dynamic range than digital could capture and the HDR version shows these details.  I like the HDR version best today.  Your opinion may differ and I may agree with you tomorrow.  Thanks for sharing the moment with me.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Things that go Bump in the Night

Over the years, the hills of Fontenelle Forest have been visited many colorful individuals.  Karl Bodmer was inspired to paint.  French trappers visited a trading post here.  Lewis and Clark slept here.  Mormons crossed the Missouri here.  Curtis LeMay placed SAC headquarters next door.

As more people moved nearby, animal life became less diverse.  Wolves were exterminated.  Mountain lions were pushed back to the Rockies.  The bears disappeared and the bison killed.  The eagles were nearly exterminated with DDT.  It is difficult to live around modern man. 

Glaciers swept through north east Nebraska several times.  They ground mountains into dust as they moved forward.  This dust blew into steep loess hills along the Missouri, including the majority of Fontenelle Forest. Ancient man arrived in time to complete the extermination of the huge mammals that inhabited Nebraska.

Fontenelle Forest is visited by hundreds of students each year.  They learn about nature and the history of this place.  In 2009 the forest hosted several life size models of dinosaurs.  They were placed throughout the forest in settings that were as natural as possible.  In this environment, it was easier to imagine that they were real.

When I visited the exhibit I wondered what it would be like to wander through the forest at night and encounter these huge reptiles.  I wondered how they could be photographed using multiple speedlights. The forest is closed at night so it wasn't possible to visit then.

The Fontenelle Nature Association Photographers Club asked me to present a program.  I received permission to visit and photograph the dinosaurs at night.  I demonstrated various lighting techniques including painting with light and taking multiple colored flash exposures in various positions while the shutter remained open.

After my demonstration, the members of the club scattered to the various dinosaur displays and used their own cameras, tripods and lights to make their own photos.  It was a challenge to set up and focus camera in the dark while others in the group painted and flashed the reptiles.  I was impressed with the variety and creativity of the results.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Whooping Crane

I had the pleasure of meeting one of the world's most endangered species today - a Whooping Crane.  The meeting was even more special because it was in the wild - not fenced in a zoo.  I shot a few photos and left thankful for the chance encounter.

Friday, March 23, 2012

New Shoots and Leaves

Spring has arrived in the Fontenelle Forest wetlands!  I was told that it was unlikely for the trees that spent the entire summer in water to survive.  Apparently some of the trees didn't get the memo and have already started to bud and bloom. Even if the majority of trees are dead, the forest has survived.

The forest floor is still barren but much of the wetlands is now covered with grass.  I saw a couple of snapping turtles swimming in the stream.  There were large numbers of insects in the water along with a few frogs.  Some of the red winged blackbirds have returned. Robins are searching for worms. This is a complete reversal from my last visit earlier in March.

Beaver activity has spread to areas that were untouched before the flood.   I'm convinced that the beavers took full credit for the flood last year and will want to repeat their success this year.  This photo shows old and new evidence of beavers

The watermark from the flood isn't that evident close up.  When you look from a distance it is impossible to miss.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fontenelle Forest Wetlands - The End of the Beginning

For tens of thousands of year water has ruled over the wetlands that now comprise part of Fontenelle Forest.  Spring floods could quickly alter the landscape.  We know they even moved the Missouri River because a couple of these moves left small lakes in the wetlands.  These changes happened quickly.  The river flooded for a few days and portions of the wetlands ended up on either the east or west side of the Missouri.  The wetlands quickly recovered from these floods - most of the vegetation could withstand the brief immersion.
When the sides of the river became Iowa and Nebraska, man tamed the river.  It was straightened so it is now many miles shorter.  Dams were built to capture the extra spring water. Levees were built so the river cannot escape its banks during the regular seasonal changes.  The fortifications were designed to stop even the greatest amount of water that could be imagined - the "hundred year floods".  The system worked - the hundred year flood of 2010 was largely contained.
2011 was different.  The dams intended to store the surplus spring water were already full  so that the lakes they created could provide maximum recreation and a constant supply of electricity.  The silt that had given the Missouri it's "Muddy Missouri" title had been collecting behind the dams and had reduced the water that they could hold.  Record amounts of snowfall in the north meant that the spring thaw would produce another hundred year flood.
By the time that officials realized what was happening, it was too late to let the dams do their job.  When the dams were filled nearly to their busting point, all the remaining surplus water was sent rushing downstream.  The levees kept the water from causing temporary flooding along the banks, so any severe flooding was moved south until it reached the point of least resistance.  While they deny it, it is evident that officials decided that the farms of southern Iowa and Nebraska were a better place to flood than anywhere near their own homes.  So the wall of water came and if these levees didn't break naturally, the officials made sure that it happened anyway.
The muskrats and beavers in the Fontenelle Forest wetlands don't vote so their homes were included in the expendable area.  The resulting flood was longer and deeper than anything this area had ever experienced.  The wetlands were covered in the spring and remained covered until fall.  Trees and wildlife that could have adapted to a shorter flood were wiped out.

Plants and animals weakened by the flooding  were immediately subjected to a Nebraska winter.  March arrived to a bleak landscape containing very few living plants and animals. 
I'm confident that this is the beginning of regeneration.  Spring will be the first chance for the plants to begin to grow again.  Insects will return and the birds will stop for a bite eat on their way north.  Animals that eat plants will start to reappear soon to be followed by the carnivores that eat them.  The bleak landscape marks the beginning.  March has been unusually mild so conditions are soon right for seeds to begin to sprout and shoots and leaves will soon appear.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Super Telephoto Micro Adjustment Using Reikan FoCal

I had early success using FoCal fully-automatic mode to determine the micro-adjustment for my shorter focal length lenses.  So far, I haven't been able to repeat that success with my super telephoto lenses. I did have success using the semi-automatic mode.  I'm still pleased with the product - I'm writing this so that you can learn from my mistakes.

The root cause of my problems was that my rock solid tripod wasn't rock solid. The super telephotos magnify any motion and the motion destroys sharpness.  While you cannot use IS during the test, this problem did demonstrate how dependent I've been on image stabilization.  
I made my tests at less than the 50 times the focal length recommended by Canon.  FoCal noticed this and told me to move to the correct distance.  I didn't because I didn't have a place to do the test that was that long.
The motion made it difficult to center my camera on the target.  FoCal shows a highly magnified shot of the target as provided by live view.  The center of the view finder didn't perfectly match the center of live view.  The image provided by FoCal on the monitor was slightly delayed.  Any adjustment I made would bounce around because of my unstable tripod before finally settling down.

The FoCal semi-automatic mode then allowed me to focus, compare small focus changes, and make micro adjustment changes without actually moving the mirror or shutter.  As a result, I was able to correctly adjust my camera and lens combination.

In real life, my tripod doesn't need to be as stable since I will be using IS and shorter shutter speeds.  Still, my photos are only as sharp as allowed by the weakest link in my system so I'm more aware of the need for a stable tripod.  Instead of shooting at ISO 100, I may move up to 320 for higher.  I'll also use mirror lock-up when it is practical.

I've noticed some online complaints from individuals who haven't used FoCal.  They are worried about FoCal requiring the serial number of their cameras.  They imply that their privacy is somewhat compromised.  Privacy isn't the problem - the real problem is piracy.   When I started to research FoCal I found a number of places where the code could be downloaded for free.  The serial number is used as part of the software encryption. Stolen code will not work without a camera with the correct serial number.  If you can afford the cameras and lenses you are testing, the value added by FoCal is definitely worth the purchase price.

How I photograph Sandhill Cranes

Half a million Sandhill Cranes stop over along the Platte River between Grand Island and Kearney Nebraska each spring.  The "Central Flyway is considered one of nature's greatest migration spectacles.  The cranes have been making this journey for thousands of years.  2012 has already been an unusual year.  For the first time in recorded history, several thousand cranes wintered in Nebraska.

It's hard to explain why I became "hooked" on Crane Photography.  Crane Photography is a challenge.  They all look alike.  Neither they or the surrounding fields are very colorful.  There are hundreds of thousands but they like to remain in the distance.

The cranes spend their nights on sandbars in the river.  Very little of the land along the river is open to the public at night.  There are a couple of blinds in good locations that can be rented if you are willing to pay more than the cost of a good motel room for the privilege.    Even there, you will find that the random nature of the cranes could mean that no cranes will be in sight.  Depending on the day, the cranes will not arrive until it's too dark for photographs and will depart as or before the sun rises the next morning.  I've rented blinds on several occasions with mixed success.

A couple of places provide guided tours that enter blinds near the river before sunset and depart after dark.  I've done this twice and didn't get a useable photo either time.  The blinds are in good locations so you can usually hear and see cranes.

When sunset is near, the cranes fly overhead in flocks looking for a safe place to sleep.  There are cranes everywhere and you can get some impressive sunset shots - as long as you aren't in a blind.
If I get up soon enough, I can arrive along the eastern portion of the river before sunrise.  The nearest sleeping cranes will be in huge flocks at least a quarter of a mile away.  It is very impressive to see them wake up and leave as a group.

The next two hours are crucial.  The light is good and the cranes are more active than they will be later.  They fly lower looking for friends and good places to eat.  They break into dances to celebrate the new day.  I drive along the gravel roads until I see cranes near the road.  Using my vehicle as a blind, I get as close as I can without disturbing them.  The cranes aren't fooled.  If they don't fly away immediately, they begin a slow retreat so that I have an increasingly smaller and smaller view of their backsides.  Even so, I get my best photos this way.  

During the remainder of the day, I can take a break from crane photography.  The cranes are not as active.  The sun heats up the ground enough to cause heat waves that distort my photos. 
I plan my afternoon journey to put me into a good position at sunset.  I usually don't position myself at the river at sunset because it is hard to see the setting sun there.  With a long lens, even a wisp of colorful clouds can make a mediocre sunset look spectacular.

You get the best crane photographs when  you are in the right place at the right time.  Longer lenses provide more opportunities but any lens can produce spectacular results.