Monday, December 23, 2013

Jumped Ship

After three decades as a Nikon SLR shooter, I’m going to sell my Nikon gear and move into the Fuji system. Following some long Shakespearian soliloquies, I finally made the leap and bought a Fujifilm X-E2 mirrorless camera.

Holy smoke, what a little beauty. It has a classic rangefinder-style look, is very well-built, and offers a host of amazing electronic features (a couple of my favs: live histogram and focus scale with depth of field indicator in the electronic viewfinder). In combination with widely-admired high-quality Fuji X-series lenses, its innovative X-trans sensor (16mp APS-C) produces remarkable image quality with superb clarity and low noise even at higher ISOs (I was astounded at how good 6400 can look). It weighs very little compared to my up-armored DSLR kit, and will make carrying my camera gear much less arduous and the photography experience that much more joyful. In short, I’m very excited about exploring this new corner of the digital photography world and I’ll be posting useful resources as I find them.

For starters, Rico Pfirstinger is a photographer who writes guides to Fuji X-series cameras and blogs at the Fuji Rumors site. Rico’s blog is called X-pert Corner and he frequently offers very substantial and useful instruction on how to get the most from these particular cameras.

There are also several user forums in which Fuji X-series photographers share experiences, answer questions, brag and argue.

"The Fuji guys" offer a series of videos showing off the camera and its various features. Ben Jacobson also has a video introduction to the camera, as does Ralf the German dude, and these characters who are clearly too cool for school.

More later.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Camera quandaries

For the last 5 years or so, I’ve been happily shooting with a Nikon D300. Fine camera in its day, but sensor technology and camera processors have advanced a lot, and newer generations promise better image quality, wider tonal range, less noise, better low-light performance, etc.

Nikon has offered updates of much of its camera range, and a number of new models, without offering an updated version of the D300 incorporating comparable build quality and features in a more state-of-the-art and capable package. In essence, they have encouraged D300 owners to buy into the full-frame camera range formerly populated only by high-end professional cameras and utilizing some of the spectacular lenses used by the pros. However, the entry-level full-frame camera, with an appropriate kit lens, retails for somewhere around $3,000. Additional lenses for this class of camera are also much more expensive than the Nikon lenses I currently use, but would need to replace for use with a full-frame camera.

I’m an amateur photographer, which means that my photo equipment is not paying for itself every time I use it. Any photo gear I buy is not so much an investment as a net drain on family savings: lost opportunities to replace our scruffy old sofa, or remodel the 1960s-style kitchen counters, or help my kid pay for college. So a $3k camera, that requires a MUCH more expensive set of lenses than I currently own, is a non-starter for me. 1-800-DIVORCE COURT.

So I’m looking around at possible non-Nikon alternatives. Right now what appeals to me is the sleek, solid, capable, and relatively affordable  Fujifilm X-E2. A camera/lens combo would cost less than half of what I would need to pay for a full-frame Nikon camera + lens. And I doubt that I would actually notice a huge difference in image quality, especially since I’m not trying to sell my photos to hyper-critical image editors. I look forward to seeing actual test results of production models of this new X-E2 in the next few weeks, but it looks very promising. Its predecessor was highly thought of, and the updated model improves on that in significant ways while preserving the very appealing design & ergonomics. I am strongly attracted to the compact, retro rangefinder design, and doing away with the whole bulky & complicated SLR pentaprism/mirror assembly seems like a huge step in the right direction for electronic cameras. We’ll see, but I’m thinking about non-Nikon non-SLR alternatives much more seriously than any time in the past.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

DxO Optics Pro 9: remarkable results from new PRIME noise reduction engine

I’ve been testing out the newest version of a raw conversion software I’ve had for several years, DxO Optics Pro, now in version 9. The new version includes their latest noise reduction engine which they call PRIME. It’s very computationally intensive and takes quite a long time to process each image (5 minutes or more on my 5-year-old iMac), but I’ve been very pleased with the results it achieved on some of my most difficult images.

I shot a series of photos of my daughter’s flamenco teacher performing at a tablau in Seville, Spain in 2009. Needless to say, this was a rare opportunity, so a re-shoot is not in the cards anytime soon. But to capture the dance I was obliged to shoot at very high ISO (5000) and, on top of that, something went horribly wrong with the color as the stage lights messed with the white balance. I was so disappointed, and feared these images were a total loss. But I never deleted them, and from time-to-time have tried to rescue them using various software tools. Until recently, none produced results that were very satisfactory.

But here is a before/after sequence showing the results I was able to get with DxO 9, using their new PRIME tool.

It’s not perfect, of course, and a more skilled user might have gotten better results than I did, but I was delighted to recover usable images from this series. I’ve printed at 8x10 and the output looks quite good to me, considering how these images started.

These images have great sentimental value for my family, and I’m really pleased that DxO enabled me to  recover them. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Color Photos from the 1940s

A selection of historical color photos from the Library of Congress. The LOC Flickr page is here.

This is really an amazing window into 20th century history.

Here’s a sample:

  Railroad cars and factory buildings in Lawrence, Mass.  (LOC)

Bayou Bourbeau plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative, vicinity of Natchitoches, La. Three Negro children sitting on the porch of a house  (LOC)

Copper mining section between Ducktown and Copperhill], Tennessee. Fumes from smelting copper for sulfuric acid have destroyed all vegetation and eroded the land  (LOC)

A cross roads store, bar, "juke joint," and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, La.  (LOC)

Round dance between squares at dance in McIntosh County, Oklahoma  (LOC)

Jim Norris, homesteader, Pie Town, New Mexico  (LOC)

Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico  (LOC)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Photographing the Klan

Photojournalist Anthony Karen has spent time with members of various Klan groups and photographed them in candid moments. While most of the folks photographed aren’t going out of their way to help me overcome my stereotypes of rednecks and crackers, I find the photos involving children especially poignant.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Photoshop snafus & silver linings

A few days ago, I had an unpleasant surprise when I opened PS. All of my PS actions had disappeared.  I had a very extensive collection from all kinds of sources, some of them I used rarely or never, but some I used all the time. I was unable to restore them using time machine so i resolved to reinstall the ones I most wanted to have available. At the same time, I decided to create new custom PS panels (using Adobe Configurator) to organize the actions I use most frequently and make them easily available when I want to use them. All of this took a while to do, but the results please me.

The most elaborate panel was the one I created for noise reduction and capture sharpening. I really like the sharpening actions created by Glenn Mitchell because they allow a wide range of choices about the kinds of edge masks to use (to confine sharpening to edge detail) and the kind of sharpening operations to perform. Glenn’s actions automatically generate smart filter layers so that if you don’t like his default settings you can open up the filter and change the settings at will, as well as the layer opacity, and so on. And Glenn incorporated “Blend If” settings which precent the sharpening from affecting contrast in either the brightest highlights or the darkest shadows. Pretty slick.

Glenn also has actions (or a PS script) to generate edge & surface masks, and I will use these to create surface masks when I want to run a noise reduction app (such as Nik Dfine or Topaz DeNoise) prior to capture sharpening. Surface masks confine the noise reduction effect to image surfaces and so avoid degrading edge contrast and apparent sharpness of detail in your image. Also slick.

So my new panel has a button to activate the edge/surface masking script, and then six sub-panels arranged accordion style on the main panel, one for each of the masking options Glenn used to create his actions (Edge, Surface, Edge and Surface, and then each of these again using his “enhanced” masks that incorporate color information). Within each sub-panel, there are four action buttons corresponding to various edge widths I might want to sharpen: extra narrow, narrow, medium, and wide.

I also made a separate panel for Glenn’s creative sharpening actions, since that comes later in my workflow. Again, these generate smart filter layers that are infinitely customizable. In addition to a basic creative sharpening action, he has actions tailored to portraits, landscapes, images with texture detail, and a high pass sharpening action for “clarity”. There is also a creative blur action.

So with a couple of clicks I can access over 30 different sophisticated PS actions, protect image edges from noise reduction, and target the kind of sharpening I want where I want it. Did I mention that this was slick?

Glenn’s blog has been inactive for a couple of years now, but he has left a wealth of information and an amazing array of sophisticated PS tools there for anyone to use. Thanks to Glenn, I was able to reload and reorganize some of the most important actions that I use on almost all my images. I’m grateful to Glenn for leaving this astonishing resource for other photographers to benefit from.

Oh, and I also saved copies of all my actions, scripts and panels in multiple locations, as well as using the PS actions panel “Save Action” function, so hopefully I won’t lose them again and, if I do, I can more easily restore them.

reprocessed fav using HDR Expose v3

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

reprocessed one of my favorite images from a few years back using some new tools: HDR Expose v3 by Unified Color. 

I love how the sunset light just touches the building while it creates rainbows in the storm clouds behind. So lucky to be in the right place at the right time that night.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dodge & Burn technique using blending modes

Sean Bagshaw explains his technique for dodging & burning using overlay (dodge - lighten) and soft light (burn - darken) blend modes in this video.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

my new Smugmug page is up

Smugmug, the web site where I post my images, has undergone a major overhaul. I like the way the new look showcases my photos, but I’m still working on customizing it to get it just the way I want.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Improved HDR Expose

I’ve been very impressed with the results I’m getting from the newly released version of HDR Expose (v. 3). No ghosts or halos (as in zero), not noisy, natural looking colors and tonal gradations, very quick and easy to use. Its now my go-to HDR software. Well done Unified Color.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Super Moon Rising

We’re going to have a super moon this weekend, so the nearly-full moon will be at peak size (closest point to earth in its elliptical orbit). I’m going to attempt to photograph it, although I don’t have much successful experience with moonlit landscapes/cityscapes. In the past, I’ve tended to overexpose the moon, resulting in an indistinct white blob in my photos.

This time my strategy is to catch it just after moonrise, and before sunset turns to dark, so as to balance the exposure between foreground and moon. I’m also going to bracket exposures for possible PS blending. I’ll use a mid-low ISO so that I can shoot somewhat faster exposures and avoid blurring the moving moon.

I have a vantage point picked out overlooking the Syracuse University campus from a 7-storey window, and the Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) indicates that the angle of moonrise should put it somewhere behind the creepy old Hall of Languages. So if things go as planned, I should be able to capture a large, warm, nearly full moon rising behind the Hall of Languages. Goth-o-rama.

I have found two useful resources to help me in this attempt. One is a brief tip sheet for photographing moonrise/moonset by Tom Field. The other is a TPE tutorial video on moonrise photography.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

La Giralda at sunrise

La Giralda, the former minaret converted to a bell tower in Sevilla, Spain. This image is a manual blend of three bracketed images. I used Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks to blend tonal ranges from the three exposures. 

Luminance Masking & Blending in Photoshop

I’ve been learning more about luminance (or luminosity) masking, and wanted to share some tutorials I have found useful. What’s so powerful about these techniques is that they allow you to make precise selections and masks, and to target adjustments, based on the luminosity information of the image you are working on. Using luminosity masks, you can select particular tonal ranges for adjustment, dodging/burning, or blending. Because they are based on the luminosity information in your image itself, these masks can create seamless and natural looking adjustments and blends. They require no special plugins (beyond Photoshop), and there are various sources for PS actions that automate the process of generating the masks for you.

First and foremost, I recommend Tony Kuyper’s tutorials on these techniques. Tony is extremely knowledgeable, he’s a natural teacher, and his instructions are thorough and clear. Tony's approach  takes a little time to work through, but it’s not overly technical and its the one source I keep going back to when I need to brush up or find the answer to a question. Tony sells a complete set of actions (embedded in a nifty custom photoshop panel) to automate the process of generating the masks (and related techniques), and I’ve found Tony’s actions really useful, but there are other sources online where luminosity mask actions are available for free. Alternatively, you can follow the detailed instructions in Tony’s written tutorials and record your own actions.

Marty Kesselman has a short tutorial based on Tony’s techniques and available as a handy PDF.

For a video course on luminosity masks, I highly recommend the collaboration between Tony Kuyper and Sean Bagshaw. Although it’s not cheap, their video instruction is remarkably thorough and clear and will boost you up the learning curve quickly. I found this to be money well spent in terms of developing my PS skill set.

Not quite as useful for basic instruction, in my experience, are the videos produced by Jimmy McIntyre.  His first introductory video on luminosity masks is a bit of a muddle, especially compared to the careful and clear introduction by Kuyper & Bagshaw. The real strength of Jimmy’s videos is not basic instruction, but the subsequent workflow videos where he demonstrates how he uses these techniques to extend the dynamic range and enhance the impact of several of his own images. Jimmy also sells his own masking actions along with his video set.

If you’re not ready to pay for a complete set of video tutorials, there are also free videos on YouTube. For example, Matthew Norris has both introductory and somewhat more advanced videos that are worth a few minutes of your time.

I’m sure there are other resources as well, but these are the ones I’ve tried.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Advanced Photoshop Tutorials

I’m enjoying Sean Bagshaw’s video tutorials for dealing with Extended Dynamic Range images in which the tonal variation between darkest and lightest areas in a scene is greater than a single exposure can capture. These are a very powerful set of techniques that allow much greater control, and fewer weird artifacts, than HDR software. I really appreciate that along with the video tutorials, Sean also provides fairly detailed notes summarizing the techniques covered in each video segment. Nice.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Alhambra dawn

Photographed July 2009.
For previously processed versions of this image, I have used a bracketed sequence to generate an HDR file for tone mapping, with some of the weirdness that comes with that whole process. For this version, I just took a single raw file (zero exposure compensation) and reprocessed it using Photo Ninja, Tony Kuyper’s Triple Play action (using luminosity masks to balance tones), and a little bit of Nik Color Efex (put just a touch of Reflector filter on the Alhambra to brighten and warm it a little). I like this one better.

Social inequality through the lens

Mark Laita’s paired portraits speak volumes about life in contemporary America.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Another Photo Ninja product (with some other magic added in)

Enjoying Photo Ninja

Photo Ninja did a lovely job with this image. I then took it into PS and warmed the distant cliff and valley using the Reflector Effect filter by Nik. I’m really pleased with the result.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

New Raw converter: Photo Ninja

I always shoot my images as raw files so that I have maximum freedom in post-processing. I’m experimenting with a new raw converter called Photo Ninja. Reviews and explorations look very promising.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

50+ Nik filters

Nik software has provided an amazing array of 50+ tutorial videos on how to use their filters. More extensive tutorials on Nik software are also available from Jason Odell. Always impressive in their capabilities, a major price reduction has made bundled Nik filters much more of a bargain.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Video Tutorials: Luminosity Masking

Tony Kuyper and Sean Bagshaw have collaborated on a series of video tutorials demonstrating Tony’s Photoshop technique for isolating particular tonal ranges within an image (luminosity masking). This technique allows very precise control of the areas within an image where a photoshop adjustment will be applied, and does so using the luminosity information of the image itself so that the selections and masks blend perfectly into the original image. Its a very powerful set of techniques with a bit of a learning curve even for relatively experienced photoshop users. Now, however, Tony and Sean have produced a set of extremely clear, logically organized video tutorials to walk us through the process of creating and using these masking techniques to finely adjust image tonality, contrast, and color saturation. Sample videos are available for a test drive. While the tutorials (and the PS actions Tony created to automate the most tedious part of the process) are not cheap, they do unlock some of the super-powers hidden within Photoshop at a price less than you might pay for a plug-in. Highly recommended.