A Gorge-ous Hike

By Mark

While we were at the Homestead Resort, one of the other fun activities we went on was their Cascades Gorge Hike.  There is a unique rain forest area nearby, which the resort also owns.   We were very fortunate, in that it rained all night and only stopped an hour before our group was scheduled to go out, which meant that we had a relatively small group.  Each hike is led by a naturalist and professional cat herder.  We were very fortunate to get Brian La Fountain as our guide and master level bad joke teller.   His puns, Sarah said in amazement are worse than mine.   He has been doing this for 30 years and you can tell totally loves his job.   You can read a bit more about him here; http://bit.ly/1Yxtlhy.

Anyway, the hike goes past 12 beautiful small waterfalls along its three mile path.  Each cascade has a very unique look.  This blog is about how I tried to process the images to capture what I saw there. 

When you go out chasing waterfalls, you have some key choices to make.  Are you trying to capture the energy of the rushing water, or are you trying to show the silkiness of the water that comes with the passage of time?  Normally, I shoot with my camera on Aperture priority.  I like choosing what elements of my image are going to be in the sharpest focus and then letting the camera figure out the right shutter speed to deliver that.   Waterfalls, like sports are best shot in Shutter priority mode.  You decide how much of the activity you want to freeze.   The longer the exposure, the smoother the water appears.  Since we were on a group hike, I didn’t have the luxury to really stay and linger, so I couldn’t do any true “long” exposures.   

I’m going to walk through three representative images from the hike.  I processed each of them slightly differently to try and experiment a bit.  Each image was initially processed in LR, but then sent them all over to Photoshop were I took slightly different approaches towards finishing each one.  

Image 213 Initial

Image 213 Initial

Image 213 wasn’t slow enough to get the really silky water, but also not crisp enough to capture the spray.   After opening the image in Photoshop, I used Nik Perfect Effects and applied the Dynamic contrast filter.  That filter made the image look too “crunchy”, so I reduced the opacity of that layer down to about 75 percent which made it look more natural.  I then returned it to LR and used the brush adjustment tool only on the water.  I applied negative Highlights and fairly strong De-haze and Clarity along the path of the waterfall.  I finished the image by applying a slight edge vignette to help draw the viewer’s eye towards the now visible details.

Image 213 Final

Image 213 Final

For image 218 I went strictly old school Photoshop, using a combination of luminosity masks and targeted adjustment levels.  

Image 218 Initial

Image 218 Initial

Under the Channels palette, I made copies of the blue and Green Channels and then made them into a selection.  

That creates a mask for applying a curves adjustment layer.  For each channel I applied the same method.  First I used the eye droppers on the side of the Curves panel to set the black and white points for the image.  I then dragged the shadows curve downward on the left and slightly raised the highlights into a gentle “S” which increased the contrast on both sides of the scale.

I repeated this for the blue Channel as well.  Finally I added a Vibrance adjustment layer to make the greens “pop” just a bit more. 

Layers Palette

Layers Palette

218 Final Image

218 Final Image

For image 228, I liked the silkiness, but thought the background was pretty blah.  Again I used the Nik Perfect Effects filters starting with the Dynamic Contrast, this time though I added a slight bit of Tonal Contrast as well to brighten and sharpen the overall image.   

228 Initial

228 Initial

You have to be careful, because some of those effects can rapidly take your image to cartoon land.  Because the Nik tools get added as a separate layer in PS, you have the option of using the masking tools on top of the effects.  The Dynamic contrast added too much detail into the water and so this time I used very soft brush set with about 10% flow and slowly painted out about half of the filter’s impact over the water.  Exactly the reverse of what I did on the very first image. 

228 Final

228 Final

The final images show how you can use the tools available to get the image you shot in your mind, and that there is always more than one way to accomplish an effect.   

Choosing A Tripod

By Roger (18 April 2016)

In my last blog (link), I told you why tripods are so useful. Now that you understand how important a tripod can be in recording the sharpest photo possible, let’s talk about what you should look for when you go out to buy one. As in all photography topics, there is a wide variety in tripod qualities and costs. If you go to our Amazon link and type in “tripods for digital cameras,” you’ll get more than 140,000 items. That list is a little long to sift through, so let's consider some things to whittle it down.

What are the most important attributes of a good tripod? Well, that is a personal choice. You need to consider the primary attributes that are the most important to you. Some things to consider: weight, component material, height, and any additional features you need/want.

Niagara Falls, a three-second exposure

One attribute I would keep out of my top ten list is price. If you buy solely on price, you'll probably regret it. Really cheap tripods are, generally, poorly made. You'll quickly leave it behind and try to go back to being tripod free. As you get more serious, you'll realize you really do need a tripod, so you'll buy one that is a little more expensive than the last one you abandoned. If you repeat this pattern a couple of times, you'll either be completely disenchanted, or you'll finally spend the money on a good tripod, and your previous tripod purchases will be wasted money. A good tripod can last more than a decade (mine is guaranteed for life). I'm not suggesting you need to buy the most expensive tripod available, but I wouldn't make price your first priority.

Tripods help in a dark bar

The most important attribute I look for in a tripod is its ability to keep my camera stable, regardless of the lens I put on the front. If you buy a very small, light-weight tripod and mount a heavy camera and lens combination, it will be inherently unstable. This would defeat the purpose of the tripod, and it won't take long for you to push the tripod into a dark corner.

You may think this is an obvious requirement, but many people don’t look at the tripod’s load capacity prior to their purchase. You need to keep in mind the lenses you use and how much weight they add to the package. For example, my camera weighs in at 3 pounds, but the lenses vary from 7 ounces to almost 5 pounds. My tripod has to keep every one of these combinations stable. I recommend buying a tripod that is capable of, at least, twice the weight you think you need. This provides an additional margin of safety and gives you room to add some heavier equipment in the future.

Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal, 2.5 seconds

The weight of your tripod can be a reason you leave it behind. The lighter the weight, the more likely you are to carry it and use it. Wood and aluminum tripods weigh significantly more than the carbon fiber tripods. However, when I bought my first good tripod, carbon fiber was not available. It is now, and I greatly appreciate the weight reduction. Carbon fiber is my current choice, until they invent something lighter and just as strong.

The construction material in your tripod has other impacts. The most common tripod materials, today, are aluminum and carbon fiber, although you can still find a couple made of wood. As I've already revealed, my favorite is carbon fiber. I think it's the most versatile. Unfortunately, it is more expensive than aluminum, but the prices have been coming down.

Why is the construction material even an issue? Well, we just talked about weight. Carbon fiber (or wood) is lighter. Carbon fiber is not impacted by water, but wood is, and salt water can be deadly to your aluminum tripod. Then there is the issue of temperature transfer. Are you going to be dealing with extreme hot or cold temperatures? Wood and carbon fiber are better because they don't transfer the temperature to your hands as much as aluminum. Most photographers who use aluminum tripods use pads and tape, on the legs, to alleviate this problem.

Consider the height you'll want your tripod to deliver. Again, the range varies widely. You can get an inexpensive Playpod (link) that will provide a very stable platform, at ground level, or a tripod that extends well above your head. Think about how you'll use the tripod and choose accordingly. I recommend choosing a tripod that, at a minimum,  is tall enough to bring the camera to your eye-level.

Tripods help in sharper portraits

Many medium height tripods feature a center post that can be extended to increase their reach or swing out perpendicular to the legs, like a boom arm. Most hardcore tripod users warn against center posts because extending the post can cause a loss of stability and increase vibration. Used sparingly and carefully, you can get along with a center post, but be aware of the problem.

Try out the different leg types; most use twist or flip locks. From my reading the most recommended is the flip locks. You just quickly flip the locks to extend or retract the legs. For some reason, I prefer the twist locks. Really, try both. You're going to constantly extend and retract the legs, so this is more important than you might think. Both work, but choose incorrectly, and you'll quickly become aggravated with your choice.

One last thing: think about how many leg extensions you want. The most common are two, three, or four. The extensions can affect the stability, so you may be tempted to go with just two. However, more extensions help reduce the folded length of the tripod – important for air travelers who want to put the tripod into their suitcase.

Lots to consider, huh? Like most things in photography, you may have to compromise somewhere to find the correct tripod for you. You may want to talk to your photographer friends to see what they like or don't like about their tripod.

In the end, I believe it is an important tool for your kit. I think it's important enough that I almost always take one on travel, and I use it frequently. Although you may think you don't want to carry the extra weight, a stable tripod will ensure the sharpest image in any kind of photography. Take it out of your closet, and show it some fun.

More Fun with Falcons

By Mark



Over the Easter weekend we took a little vacation down to the Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs VA.  We planned on staying a couple of nights and had so much fun we stayed an extra day.  One of the adventures they offered was the chance to go and play with their falcons.  We enjoyed it so much last summer in Ireland, that we wanted the opportunity again.   Thanks to American insurance laws it was a very different experience, but still quite thrilling.   In Ireland, we had a short lesson, and then got to take the birds flying through the woods.  Here, they require a preliminary training class first, and then you can take a second one and actually “fly” the birds yourself.   We certainly would have, but couldn’t fit it into our busy schedule of relaxing. Luckily we can go back and go on from there.  First, let me say that these aren’t actually falcons.  Falcons can be fairly ill-tempered and with the number of children these birds interact with, probably not a great idea.  These birds, just like in Ireland, are actually Harris hawks.  Our bird’s name was Remington.

Linda, the falconer was very proud of her birds and did a great job connecting with the fairly large group, including kids to the history and habits of the birds, hunting and the challenges of keeping them healthy. One of her best points was that these birds are not her friends; they just see her as the easiest path to reliably get food.  It was clear though that she respected them and knew what they were thinking before they did.  You can see they share common expressions and are sharply focused.  

You did get to sign waivers before you took the course.  One of the neatest parts of her demonstration was showing just how food focused and agile the hawks are.  She stood this couple together a few inches apart and held out the food down low. 

Remington had no problem, folding back her wings and making it through the gap.  At the end of the flying demo, she got a nice treat.

After she was pretty full, she went through the crowd allowing all the brave people to perch Remington on their hands.  Sarah is getting to be very comfortable. 

Just for perspective, here was the first really brave adventurer.

I gave Sarah my camera and she managed to get one in focus shot of me.   I like the fact that my nose is just slightly bigger than Remington’s—at least from this angle.   It is difficult to describe just how impressive these hunters are when seen up close.  They are still wild and very fierce and that is exactly how it should be.  

Try A Tripod

By Roger (4 April 2016)

One of the more under-appreciated pieces of photography gear is the tripod, and that's a shame. They have many important uses in photography, and, in the old days, they were part of every photographer's kit. A good tripod can last forever if it's treated properly. It never needs a software upgrade or new batteries. Yet, so many photographers either don't own one or let them gather dust in the closet.

A good tripod is vital for extra sharpness

A good tripod is vital for extra sharpness

Let's cover just a few of their more negative traits, first, and end on the high side. They can be a pain to carry around if you need maximum mobility and don't want the added weight. A high-end tripod and ballhead can be a very expensive addition to your toolbox. With today's high ISO capabilities and built-in image stabilization, too many photographers think they don't need a tripod.

All of these complaints are valid; however, although tripods aren't practical for every occasion, they are still extremely useful in certain environments. I always keep one in my vehicle and, usually, bring one when I’m going by plane. During my recent four-city road trip, I needed my tripod at each location, so I was really glad I dragged it along.

A vase from the Pompeii exhibit

The most basic use of your tripod is as a solid foundation to remove any worries about camera movement. New cameras are almost all equipped with some sort of image stabilization, but that can only help so much. To achieve maximum sharpness, you often need a platform to keep your camera absolutely still, especially as the focal length and/or exposure times increase. Nature photographers, with their long, heavy lenses, and landscape photographers, who require edge-to-edge sharpness, will “always” use a tripod.

Don’t be lulled into complacency because new cameras are capable of higher ISOs than were imaginable in the recent past. There are trade-offs there, too. High ISO photographs are more prone to noise in the shadows. I have a camera that works very well in low light, but who wants to worry about noise when you can use a tripod and keep your ISO and noise low?

Basilica Notre Dame, Montreal, Canada

This is a six second exposure at ISO 200. There is no noise, even when you zoom into 600%. (Yes, I’ve checked to be certain.) I couldn’t have made this photo without a tripod; you can't hand-hold the camera that still. Even with a high ISO setting, I would not have the clarity this photo required.

There are so many other similar reasons for relying on the stable platform of a tripod. If you need to greatly increase your depth of field, the resulting small aperture greatly reduces the light to the sensor and necessitates slower shutter speeds. Use a tripod. If you need several varying exposure photographs for a high dynamic range photograph, a tripod will keep your camera stable for perfect alignment. If you want to create the best panorama alignment, use a tripod. Night photography, with or without star trails, self-portraits, light painting photos, macro photography – the list of obvious uses is long.

4 photo pano, Denali, Alaska

There are even more uses that might not be so obvious to you.

So many photographers whip from photo to photo, never slowing down to contemplate the best way to record what is in front of them. Since a tripod will reduce your mobility, you can slow down and more carefully examine the composition inside your camera. This is a good thing and can improve the quality of your photos. You get no extra points for making more photos than someone else, especially if those photos are mediocre. Take your time and concentrate on better quality photos.

You can use tripods to hold continuous lighting, flash guns, or reflectors. There are lots of accessories specifically designed for tripods. When Mark did his Halloween photobooth (link), he had a table, from Tether Tools (link), set up on a tripod, holding his laptop. Since his camera was plugged into his computer, the photos would come up on the screen for immediate viewing by the guests.

If you want to shoot video, a tripod can get rid of those jerky movements you see in so many videos. I would recommend a fluid head to get the smooth movements you see in professional videos. You may not shoot much video, but it is a rapidly growing area of photography. You can never start learning too early.

There are so many varieties and price ranges for quality tripods today. I think we'll just save that topic for another blog. So the next time you go out to make some new photography, think about your dusty tripod, and take it with you. You'll never use it if you leave it at home.

Weed macro