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Portland at Night

I was helping my brother-in-law move some things out of his apartment in Portland, Oregon this last weekend.  I had about an hour to spare before loading things up, so I took a walk up the east shore of the Willamette River near OMSI.

I’ve learned over the last decade to listen to my wife.  She suggested I take my camera to Portland, and I told her several times I was fairly certain I wouldn’t have a chance to use it.  But she talked me into it and I’m glad I had it!

Portland, OR - 35mm, 3 sec @ f/11, ISO800

Portland, OR – 35mm, 3 sec @ f/11, ISO 800

What I did NOT have was my tripod. So I had to raise my ISO setting and brace my camera on the walkway or posts I found.  It’s always a balancing act and a compromise between the “trinity”: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO speed.  Fortunately, the EOS 6D is great for night time photos because the ISO can be fairly high without losing a lot of detail.  A smaller aperture in this first shot required me to hold my camera against the edge of a dock to steady it during the 3 second exposure. Half my shots were still blurry or soft and had to be tossed out.


Portland - 35mm, 1/15, f/2.8, ISO 3200

Portland – 35mm, 1/15, f/2.8, ISO 3200

For the above shot, I tried hand holding the camera without bracing it against anything. I used a higher ISO and wider aperture to get more light for the faster shutter speed.  Even with Image Stabilization, 1/15 of a second is stupid slow for hand held shots, so I pretended to be a sniper, breathing slowly out and squeezing the shutter very slowly.  Just trying to avoid any shake in my hands or body.  I did use a little noise reduction in Lightroom, but that’s a pretty nice looking shot for ISO 3200!


Portland - 35mm, 1/6, f/4.0, ISO 1600

Portland – 35mm, 1/6, f/4.0, ISO 1600

I did take some shots with my 17-40mm lens, but I found that the wider angle shots made the details too far away to truly appreciate, and 35mm allowed me to simplify my compositions enough to make them somewhat interesting. A strip of city lights across the middle of a frame just isn’t that appealing, but incorporating the bridges and getting a little closer helped a lot.


Portland - 20mm, 10 sec, f/11, ISO 800

Portland – 20mm, 10 sec, f/11, ISO 800

Here’s a shot I did use the EF 17-40 f/4L at 20mm because I wanted a little more sky and water. Interesting to notice the star pattern difference around the lights in this shot compared to the first shot with the EF 35mm f/2 IS.  Different optics and apertures… This is one of those shots I was bracing the camera against the edge of a dock and managed to keep it still for 10 seconds.

This is kind of a basic of photography, but it’s still interesting to note that over a 10 second exposure, the water closer to the camera is more blurred and it sharpens up the farther away you look. It’s all really moving about the same speed.  Which was pretty fast. I had my 7-year-old with me and told him to stay in the middle of the dock walkway. If he fell in, it would be a real trick to catch him and get him back to shore in the quick moving, frigid December water. Then we’d both have to deal with hypothermia.  Just gotta think ahead and try to prevent things like that.

I want to do more of this kind of photography in the future.  Preferably with a tripod, so I have more control over settings.  But it means getting out there on location just before the “blue hour” so the sky still has some color and isn’t completely black.  I’m very fortunate to have a patient wife who lets me take off on photo outings alone, or waits for me when I hold everybody up while I shoot something that grabbed my attention.

Seattle photos & Canon’s micro-focus adjustments

Downtown Seattle - 168mm, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO1600

Downtown Seattle – 168mm, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO1600

I took this shot from Hamilton Viewpoint Park in West Seattle.  I had my 10-year-old EF 70-200mm f/4L lens on my new EOS 6D.  The lens itself has a fairly severe back focusing problem (focuses slightly further than what the autofocus point is aimed at). When I first noticed it, I chalked it up to camera shake blur, or I would have returned it and asked for another copy.  The more I used it, I began to notice that an animal’s eyes (which I pointed the AF point at) were a little soft, but the fur on its shoulders was tack sharp.  If my shutter speed was too slow the whole shot would have been soft. Thank goodness for Canon’s MFA (Micro-Focus Adjustment) feature on their newer dSLRs!

My EOS 50D and EOS 7D allowed you to set an autofocus compensation adjustment for each lens, which the AF system would take into account each time you attached a particular lens.  Very handy, but I discovered the 6D actually has separate wide and telephoto MFA settings for each lens.  Awesome!  Especially for troublesome lenses like my 70-200mm.  I’ve tried hooking my 7D to my computer and focusing on a target on the wall halfway across the house to make these settings.  This time I took a more practical, albeit less scientific, approach.

I like using magnified Live View and manually focusing to ensure sharp landscapes.  Action shots or situations which require precise timing and a quick shutter finger can’t take advantage of this technique, but it works for tripod shots of static subjects.  To set my MFA adjustments, I set the camera on a tripod and focused on a subject that was about the distance of most subjects I’d shoot with that particular lens.  For example: at 200mm, I focused on the tree across the road about 300 feet away, and for my 35mm, I focused on a bench about 10 feet away.  Normal working ranges for me at those focal lengths.  Then I magnified Live View 5X or 10X, and manually focused until the details were as sharp as I could get them.  Next I flipped the lens’ AF switch and half-pressed the shutter while carefully watching the distance scale on the lens.  If it moved, I entered an adjustment.

Eventually, I got all my lenses not to move at all from the sharpest I could get using magnified manual focus.  Now I am getting the sharpest images I ever have with my 70-200, thanks to a minus 15 micro-focus adjustment.  Just to put that in perspective, -20 is the farthest you can go, and my other lenses needed only +/- 3 MFA or less.  But look at those buildings!  Very sharp.  Great optics, but a poorly aligned AF motor.

Space Needle - 154mm, 1/500, f/8, ISO800

Space Needle – 154mm, 1/500, f/8, ISO800

Another secret for sharp hand-held images:  My shutter speed was set to 1/500 sec.  The basic rule is to set your shutter speed at, or higher than, your focal length. So at 200mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/250.  I went a little faster because it was breezy and I know, even bracing my elbows on the fence, I can’t keep the camera completely still. If I have to raise my ISO to get a high enough shutter speed, I do it!  Sharp but grainy photos are more usable than smooth but soft, blurred photos, and software noise reduction actually works surprisingly well.

Seattle Bi-Color - NIK Color Efex Pro 4

Seattle Bi-Color – NIK Color Efex Pro 4

Here is a crazy bi-color filter on one of the photos I took. Now that I look at it inserted into the post, it looks like I jammed a sunset city and mid-afternoon water together in Photoshop, but it really is one photo.  Sometimes it’s fun to just experiment and not be too stuck on “realistic”.

Rainier from Discovery Park

Rainier from Discovery Park

This is a shot from earlier the same day at Discovery Park north of downtown Seattle.  I normally don’t like borders but once it awhile I think it can add to the photo.  If you look at the horizon line just to the right of the mountain, that’s where I went to shoot the other photos in this post.  I used my EF 35mm f/2 lens for this photo at f/13, trying to keep everything in focus from near to far.

I hope you like the photos, and if you have an EOS dSLR and think your lenses might not be autofocusing precisely, this may give you some ideas.

HDR variations of Seattle

The realist in me struggles with stylized HDR photography, but the artist in me loves the vivid and surreal effects. Some of them look so cool! In the end I have to reconcile these two photographers in me: the photojournalist who thinks everything should look just like the real scene, no more and no less, and the artist who loves creative effects which go way beyond realistic.

So here is a non-HDR exposure for comparison, shot at minus 1.33 stop exposure compensation.  I chose the (-1.33) from my (-1.33, 0, +1.33) HDR set. (I should have used 2 full stops over/under, but I wasn’t paying attention.)  I chose the underexposed image (according to the camera’s meter) because the meter tries to expose everything 18% gray, and this night scene was a lot darker than that.

Seattle at Night - Non-HDR

Seattle at Night – Non-HDR

So that’s what happens when I shoot RAW and use slight negative exposure compensation, then edit in the computer with my still growing but painfully lacking skills. Not bad, and it looks fairly realistic.

Seattle Night - HDR 1

Seattle Night – HDR 1

This is the HDR version. I think “detail extractor” and/or contrast adjustments in my Aperture plug-in software caused the vertical streaks you see in the sky. I’ll have to experiment and figure out how to eliminate that unpleasing effect.

Seattle Night - HDR 2

Seattle Night – HDR 2

Combining three images into one seems to make the color saturation more intense.  Also, moving things are blurred because the longest exposure was 30 seconds. It probably should have been longer, but 30 secs is the longest I can set the camera to without plugging in an external timer. If you look at the ship’s rear housing, it was obviously rocking slightly. And just above the front of the ship, you can see the blurred lights of two ferries pulling into port.

Seattle Night - HDR 3

Seattle Night – HDR 3

This last shot is more stylized and less realistic. The shadows lightened up and the colors are even more intense.  It can also create some strange halo effects around objects like the dark building on the right

HDR, in it’s most basic sense, allows us to capture detail that a single exposure would lose in it’s shadows and highlights because the “Dynamic Range” is too “High” for the sensor get everything at a single exposure value.  Shadows too dark and highlights too bright. Combining over- and under-exposed images allows us to capture that extra detail and compress it into tones we can perceive with our eyes.

I am still learning about HDR and when to use it, but from what I’ve gathered so far, most daylight shooting doesn’t call for it. It’s simply not needed because the tones from dark to light can be captured with a single exposure. An example of where it could come in handy would be if you are shooting a scene where the sky is much brighter than the foreground. Or you could just use a graduated neutral density filter to even things out. Obviously, it’s not practical for fast moving subjects or photos that require precise, split-second timing.

Someone said HDR exposures should be at least 2 stops apart, otherwise you’re just wasting exposures. Some people do 7- or 9-shot sequences, which seems a bit like overkill to me, but there may be some extreme situations that call for it. I do like some of the cool HDR effects, but I’m drawn to a cleaner, smoother, less gritty and texturized look.

Seattle as the sun sets…

I have been experimenting with long exposure photography and night-time HDR photos. One afternoon last week I drove up to West Seattle and took some photos from a hillside park with a great view of the downtown area across the water.  I took some HDR photos (bracketed exposures of the same composition) after the sun went down, but I’ll save those for another post.

When I started really getting into film photography around 1993, some people called me “Filter Boy” because I liked to stylize my shots with colored filters.  I grew to appreciate the natural look and moved away from doing that. Another reason to avoid using colored filters on film is that such effects can be added in software if you scan the negative, but you can’t change the negative itself when the sunset is forever an unnatural purple color.  I do use a polarizing filter to cut haze in daytime scenic shots, or graduated neutral density filters to even out exposure, but that’s about making a crisper, better exposed photo, not a more colorful one.

Fast forward to present day… we have some powerful and awesome image editing software!  And it’s quite hard to stop myself from pushing RAW files to be much more colorful and contrasty than the original scenes actually were.  So forgive me if some of these don’t look entirely natural. I was having fun!

Seattle at Sunset

Seattle at Sunset

Seattle Panoramic

Seattle Panoramic

Seattle & Ship

Seattle & Ship

Seattle Building Reflections

Seattle Building Reflections