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No Lions, No Tigers, But Bears, Oh My!

We eventually happened across a lake called Bow Lake, which was actually quite picturesque.  I plopped down my tripod and did my usual pano thing, and after just chilling with Nolan and Sylvia for a while, we decided it was time to go.  I set up my tripod to take a non-panorama shot of the scene, and realized for some reason my camera wasn't focusing properly.  After looking through the camera settings, I found out that I accidentally switched my lens to manual focus, so I quickly changed it back to regular autofocus and snapped a couple of frames.  You may be wondering why I wasted your time with this seemingly insignificant detail - when I got home and went through my frames, I realized my panorama shots were taken with my lens at manual focus, and unfortunately, it was focused incorrectly.  Not quite sure how I didn't catch it as I was framing the picture, but I completely missed it.  Moral of the story - take a quick look at your pictures after you take them to ensure focus is correct =P

Anyways, I'll show one shot I took that was in focus, again to highlight a camera's dynamic range.

bowdark.jpg

A nice silhouette of the vista, but I brought it into Lightroom to see how much detail I could recover.  The following is the same file, brightened in Lightroom:

bowlight

That's pretty incredible.  With the ability to recover this much detail, some people wonder why I even bother with HDR - two reasons mainly.  Firstly, although it's hard to tell in this picture, increasing the brightness this much allows something we photographers call noise to rear its ugly head (think of noise as grains of pepper in an image, which robs the picture of some its detail).  Secondly, sometimes increasing the brightness this much may cause some color inconsistencies.  Since I love to print big (which makes noise more evident), I still use HDR to try and maximize quality.

On our way back, we noticed some cars pulled over on the side of the road, with some photographers leaning out of their open windows, trying to get shots.  This could only mean one thing in the language of photographers - bears!  We quickly pulled over, and being the idiot I am, I grabbed my camera and ran out of the car.  

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Luckily for me, mama bear and baby bear were more then content to do their thing - if mama bear saw me as a threat, I might not be here typing this blog =P  A few of the photographers there later told me that if I ever decide to get out of the car to take pictures of bears without any barriers, I need to have bear spray at the very minimum.  Always better to be prepared, right?

Lake of the Wolf

It's been a couple of weeks - took Victoria Day off, then got sidetracked last week, but the blog is seemingly back on track =)  After Moraine Lake, the three of us decided to hit up Peyto Lake.  I've mentioned the smog caused by the forest fire quite a few times already in the previous post, but it's probably most obvious in the pictures I took at Peyto Lake.

peyto01.jpg

Yikes!  Unfortunately, there's not much even software can do to recover all the detail.  The image above was a single shot, but I also decided to do a pano of the lake.

peyto02.jpg

Normally I like my pictures sharp, but given the haze in the picture, I decided to give this one a glow-like effect.  This probably won't suit everyone's tastes, but I prefer this effect over just having a hazy picture.  As an aside, Peyto is known as Wolf Lake or Lake of the Wolf.  What do you see - a wolf's neck and head, or a wolf's paw?

Finally, I'd like to quickly talk about dynamic range again.  Each camera has its own dynamic range, and in general, better cameras have a larger dynamic range.  What does this mean?  Cameras with a larger dynamic range are able to produce pictures that allow the user to recover more highlight and shadow information from a single shot than ones with lower dynamic range.  If you get the picture correct in camera, generally all cameras have enough dynamic range unless you're shooting into the sun or at night (HDR works great for these situations), but sometimes you get the settings wrong and the picture itself just comes out too bright or too dark.

peyto03.jpg

That's a picture that Sylvia took of me with my camera (D800), and clearly the settings were completely wrong and the picture came out way too bright (this wasn't her fault though - I handed her the camera with settings I used for a different picture).  Luckily for me, the D800 has incredible dynamic range, and using Lightroom, I was able to recover a lot of detail that wasn't there in the original shot.

peyto04.jpg

Pretty awesome, no?  Obviously there's a limit on the amount of information that's recoverable, and you can see that there's still very little detail in the top left portion of the sky (and the lake also seems a tad discoloured as well), but the safety net pro cameras provide is amazing =) 

Moraine Logging

If you've been to Banff and Lake Louise before, you'll probably be familiar with the drive to Lake Louise.  At one point during the drive, the road bifurcates - one of the two paths leads to Lake Louise, and the other Moraine Lake.  Sylvia was quite excited to head to Moraine Lake, and initially, I didn't share her enthusiasm.  I had never even heard of Moraine Lake until then, despite the fact it graced the back of our $20 bill until a recent redesign.  Suffice it to say, I was flabbergasted when I finally saw the view - it is, in my humble opinion, unquestionably the most beautiful place in Canada.

There's a very short climb one can do to get a better vantage point, but being a photographer, one always tries to get an even better view, so I happily ignored the "do not cross" sign at the top of the climb, and scampered down some rocks to set up shop.

moraine01.jpg

That's a quick pano I did of Moraine Lake, and I think the haze due to the forest fire is pretty evident here.  Clearly this shot does not do the most beautiful place in Canada any justice, and although I'll talk about Moraine Lake again in a future post, none of the pictures I took during my stay in Banff really do.  Looking back, I can attribute the lack of awesomeness to two points - 1) Haze, 2) My standards of what makes an epic photograph.  I'll leave the discussion of standards for another post, but I just want to quickly highlight that it's important that as you get better as a photographer, that you update your own requirements for what makes a great picture.

After I was done my pano, we decided to take some shots of us messing around.  

moraine02.jpg

I'm sure our complete and utter disregard for safety here will disappoint parents around the world, but hey, Nolan held back and didn't do a split eagle =P  Anyways, there are two photographic reasons I posted the pic above.  First, see the rocky extension at the bottom of the photo?  That's where I took my pano from, and why that "do no cross" sign exists in the first place.  Secondly, you'll notice in the pic on the left, Nolan is pretty dark, although everything else seems to be exposed properly, and that in the pic on the right, he's exposed properly, but the background is a bit washed out.  For landscapes, you already know that I use HDR to fix this, but it's impossible to use HDR on moving subjects.  Most sane people would be happy with the shot on the right, but alas, my standards came into play, so I cracked out my SB-900 (Nikon's flash unit), had Sylvia hold it in position, and tried to create a better pic.

moraine03

Big difference, eh?  Nolan's perfectly exposed, and by changing the camera settings to have the background slightly underexposed, he actually has some "pop" that helps him stand out.  People have always questioned why I waste space in my bag by carrying a couple of flashes, but sometimes you just need them to create the right mood for a photo.

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Talking about mood, one can see why one's fashion choice also helps shape a picture - I'm sure if I was dressed more appropriately, this picture would be a lot cooler.  Instead it's just a cool picture of some dude with no fashion sense =P  

Anyways, we eventually trekked back down to lake level (Nolan took a shortcut that entailed a much steeper descent), and as Sylvia and I walked towards our meet-up spot, we noticed Nolan was goofing off again, although the setting itself was pretty nifty.

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I'm not quite sure why those logs were there, but I immediately hopped over to join Nolan to try and capture a picture of Moraine Lake from that vantage point.  I should actually be extremely thankful Nolan was there, as he held on to me as I was taking the picture - my sense of balance is pretty shoddy, and he probably saved me, and my equipment, from having a nice bath.  This HDR was the final picture I took of Moraine Lake that day, although we did come back again in the future, and I'll talk about that in a later post =)

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Tranquil Louise

I'm not sure what the first thing that comes to mind is for most people when they hear the word "Banff", but for me, that thing is Lake Louise.  Pretty much everyone who's been to Lake Louise talks about the beautiful scenery and its pristine water, so I was quite excited to finally make the trip there.  I had wanted to hit it up before sunrise to get all the colours, but alas, I slept in, and we didn't get there until 8ish. 

It was already quite busy when we got there, so I quickly ran from the parking lot to the first vantage point I saw and snapped a quick picture. 

Louise01

You can tell it's a bit hazy in the distance, and that's mainly due to the forest fire that struck the region just before I got there.  Not the worst picture in the world, but it wasn't quite doing it for me.  I wanted to get a wider shot, and I also noticed some rocks in the foreground that I thought would add some interest, so I switched my lens to Nikon's landscape workhouse, the 14-24mm, and took another shot.

louise02

I was much happier with the composition of this picture.  I'll talk about composition more in a future blog, but in general, it's rare that the first picture you take will be the the killer shot of the bunch.  If you see something you like, take a picture - the great thing about digital is once you have your SD/CF/XQD card, memory is free, so shoot away!  Once you've taken your shot though, think about ways you can improve it - can you move to a better location, use a different lens, or change your angle?  Sometimes a tiny perspective change can make a big difference, and in this case, I really liked how the rocks added to the image, and the wider vista overall as well.  The tones are already pretty good in this image, but as you may have already guessed, being the HDR lover I am, I took a bunch of shots to create the final HDR photograph, "Tranquil Louise"

louise03

I pondered about the scene some more, and thought a panorama of the scene might make for an excellent picture.  I've talked about panoramas in the past, and they can be a bit time consuming, but I didn't want to regret not putting the work in to take one when I got back to Toronto, so I set up my equipment and fired away.

louise04

The wider vista is nice as it allows you to fully get the peaks of the mountains on the left and right sides, but there's something about the composition that just didn't do it for me.  I hated losing the rocks, and I didn't feel as if getting the full vista added much to the composition - I actually preferred (and still prefer) the intimacy that Tranquil Louise has.  Either way, I'm still glad I took the time to create the panorama - at the very worst, it served as practice for me, and I still got a decent picture out of it to boot =)

Of course, no visit to Lake Louise would be complete without the requisite selfie (Nolan and Sylvia had abandoned me to go on a small hike).  I could have done it with my iPhone, but two things stopped me from doing so - 1) If I have my SLR on me, I'll always try and do it with the SLR, and 2) I might be a photographer, but I am absolutely horrid at taking selfies with a phone.  How horrid?  You're familiar with Donald Trump, right?  Think about how well Trump and Hispanics get along - that's just about equivalent to how iPhone selfies and I get along.  Yes, I'm that terrible at them - for some reason, I just can't hold the phone properly, and at the right angle, like ever.  Luckily cameras are sophisticated enough these days that you can put a timer on, run into the scene while the camera counts down, and have time to smile before the camera captures the image.  And clearly I didn't learn my lesson from he previous day - I'm still in my flip flops - luckily for me they were more than enough to conquer the non-hiking vantage point that Lake Louise had to offer =P

louise05

Sulphur Mountain

Since I've talked about some of the locales in Banff in my previous posts, I figure it's a good time to talk about my trip there in 2014.  I'll preface this by mentioning there was a huge forest fire that occurred just before my trip, and unfortunately for me, this also made for some hazy photographic conditions.

I went with my cousin, Nolan, and his wife, Sylvia, to Banff in the summer of 2014.  I actually did very little research about many of the attractions there as Sylvia is an excellent trip planner, but had I done so, I would have immediately realized that part of what makes Banff such a great place lies with its hiking trails.  This normally wouldn't be an issue, but on my trip to Sulphur Mountain, it definitely was.  Why, you ask?  I wore flip flops that day =(

Now, to be fair, I did have a chance to avoid hiking in flip flops as there's a gondola that takes you to the vantage point if you're willing to pay for it.

sulphur01

Of course, being the big spender that I am, I refused to pay the Gondola fee, telling myself that much of the satisfaction of the day would come from "beating the mountain" by doing the hike in shoddy foot wear.  

Looking back, it obviously wasn't a good idea to do a 5.5 km hike in flip flops, but I assured Nolan and Sylvia I'd be able to keep up, and off we went.  About 25% of the way through, I was already lagging behind, and at about 50%, I told them to just go on ahead without me.  The climb itself shouldn't have been that bad (it's done through a series of switchbacks to help mitigate the elevation factor somewhat, although the same switchbacks also add to the overall distance of the hike), but footwear, coupled with lugging my camera gear, made it a much tougher proposition than it should have been.  

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That's really the only picture I took during the climb that gives a sense of the elevation - I spent the rest of the time huffing and puffing, and also cursing my lack of foresight.  Eventually, I did finally make it to the top (probably 45 minutes after Nolan and Sylvia got there), and was treated to some amazing sights.  

sulphur03

As I alluded to earlier though, the haze created by the forest fire did cause some issues with regard to photos as it was basically impossible for the camera to resolve all the detail that was veiled by the hovering smoke/ash.  It may be cliche, but you know what they say - when you're given a lemon, make lemonade, and I did the best I could given the circumstances.  The three of us spent a bit more time up there enjoying the sights, and we all snapped as many photos as we could, then decided it was time to go.

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Luckily for me, Sylvia wanted to experience the gondola ride going down, and at that point, the mountain had convinced me it was worth paying the fee, so we took the gondola down, and that pretty much ended our trip to Sulphur Mountain.  When I think about all the sights we saw at Banff, I'd probably rate Sulfur Mountain as one of the lesser ones (mainly due to the fact that the other locales were just incredibly scenic), with the hike itself being somewhat boring as you're just navigating through a series of switchbacks.  That being said, the view is still amazing, and definitely worth experiencing if you're in Banff for an extended period.

sulphur05

As for beating the mountain, I'd call it a draw =P

Ever Wish You Could Paint Landscapes?

I have to be one of the worst artists in the world.  I was the kid in school who got 4/10 or 6/10 on his art assignments, with the only comment being "Good Effort".  I'm sure I was the only student in my class who looked forward to art history, as that served as my lone hope to boost my overall mark to something that would be close to acceptable for an Asian parent lol.  

So what on Earth does this have to do with photography?  Luckily for us people who are artistically challenged, if you're able to take photographs, you can somewhat turn those photos into paintings with the help of technology.  Of course it's definitely not the same as being able to paint, but it's something, and something is generally better than nothing!

As the last couple of posts dealt with star trails, I'll keep up the theme and talk about a picture I took on a previous trip to the Rockies.  What I really wanted to do was take a star trails picture over Mount Rundle, but there was a problem - it was a full moon, and the moon was right over Mount Rundle from my vantage point.  Why was this an issue?  The brightness of the light reflected from the moon drowned out any of the stars in its vicinity, so it was basically impossible to take any star trails pictures with Rundle in the foreground.  Luckily, there were other foreground elements in the area I was in (Vermillion Lake), so I angled my camera a little bit away from the moon, set up shop, and created "Rocky Juxtaposition"

rockyjuxtaposition

The techniques I talked about in the previous post are the same ones I used here, namely

1) HDR of the foreground
2) Multiple pictures to create the star trails
3) Bring these multiple pictures into software to create one star trails picture
4) Use photoshop to merge the HDR foreground with the star trails picture to get the final image

Now, if someone asked me to paint that landscape, it'd be a complete and utter disgrace.  Remember William Hung's epic "She Bangs" performance on American Idol all those years ago?  My painting would be worse.  Much worse.  Fortunately, there are programs like Topaz Impression that will help transform your photograph into a photograph that, especially when printed on canvas, will resemble a painting.  You won't get the texture that paint on a canvas creates, but the painterly effect is still there nonetheless.  There are many "recipes" already included in Topaz Impression, that when applied, will give you a certain effect (ie Monet effect, Renoir effect, etc).  After playing with the program a bit, I ended up with this:

vermillionimpression

From a personal standpoint, i actually prefer the faux-painting over the "plain" photograph, although I'm sure others will disagree.  So for those of you who can't paint or draw, don't lose hope.  As long as you can take a picture, you can fake it into a painting =)

Starry Louvre

Like I mentioned in the last post, one of my goals was to create a star trails picture over a popular landscape/monument.  It's tough to get a good star trails pic within a city as the light pollution tends to drown out the stars, but camera technology is pretty good these days, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

It was my last day in Paris during my 2014 visit - all the previous days had cloud cover, but apparently destiny wanted me to attempt a star trails picture as I was blessed with a clear sky on my final night.  I decided upon using the Louvre as my foreground, as it's pretty quiet there around 1 am, and just as important, I also believed it'd be one of the safer places to attempt this given I was alone and carrying thousands of dollars worth of equipment =P

LouveSTbright

That's one of the pictures I took to capture the stars in the sky.  I know its hard to see them in the picture above, but the one below shows a close up of the actual sky, and with it, the stars. 

louverSTstarcrop

Wow, that's a pretty pathetic star trail, right?  Not to worry - those tiny streaks may not look like much, but the combination of many, many pictures of these tiny streaks is what finally creates the trail in the sky.

Before I get to the final result, I just quickly want to talk about the techniques used to ultimately create it.  Some of you may have already noticed it in the first picture, but the bottom half of the museum itself is eye-damagingly overexposed.  There's no way around this - to get the stars to show up in the picture, you need to leave the shutter open, and all other elements in the foreground that are lit will be overexposed due to this.  HDR can fix the museum, but you can't HDR star trails as you need multiple pictures at a consistent exposure to get the trails.  The solution?  

1)  Create an HDR of the foreground (the Louvre)
2)  Take multiple pictures to capture the star trails
3)  Use software to merge each star trail shot together to create the final star trails picture
4)  Combine the HDRed Louvre with the final star trails picture to get your final result

The most important thing is knowing that each step needs to be done beforehand.  If you realize you forgot to take the HDR shots after you're back from the shoot, it's too obviously too late - make sure you visualize your final result before you even take your first picture!  Almost everyone who takes a star trails picture will do steps 2 and 3 (instructions can be found here), but if you stop there, your end result will look like this.

louvreSTnoHDR

I already edited it a tad to try and make the brighter parts darker (and darker parts lighter), and although It's not terrible, the foreground is just too bright and actually competes with the star trails for attention.  In the context of cityscape star trails, steps 1 and 4 are what takes your photography to the next level.

starrylouvre

In total, I took 242 pictures to create the star trails, starting at 1:13am, and ending at 3:22am.  The one downer about doing star trails is you're basically standing around for the time period you set your camera to take the pictures.  I think I spent those 2+ hours playing boggle on my iPhone =P  

Star Trails

I'm a big believer in practicing techniques before actually attempting them on location.  In fact, I've been accused of spending too much time practicing, and not enough time with other aspects of the business.  Sometimes you get lucky without practice, as I did with the Matterhorn pano from the previous blog posts, but in general, trying a new technique on location usually leads to small errors you don't realize until after you get home from the shoot.

I've always wanted to attempt a star trails shot over a famous landscape/monument, so I did some research on how to take a star trails picture.  For those who aren't familiar with star trails, there's an example picture at the end of the post, but in essence, because of the earth's rotation, as time passes, the stars will appear to move in the night sky.  Capturing this movement is what creates the trails in the sky.

There are two ways to do this - you could take one long picture, as a single exposure will capture the stars as they move.  There is one big problem with this though - the longer you leave your camera shutter open, the more light that gets in, and as such, you can only have a relatively short exposure, otherwise your picture will be blown out.  Why is this a problem?  The shorter the exposure, the less movement you'll get from the stars.

The second method is generally the more accepted one of capturing star trails.  You take a bunch of pictures consecutively for a certain amount of time (ie you can take 360 shots, with each one lasting 30 seconds, giving you 3 hours worth of star movement).  You then take all the pictures into a program specifically designed for creating star trails (I used a program called StarStaX, which can be found at http://www.markus-enzweiler.de/software/software.html), and the program will stack all the images together, thus creating the trails in the sky.

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That's the first picture I took.  I outlined the Big Dipper in yellow, for reasons that will become obvious in the next picture, which is the final picture I took in the stack.

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The first and last pictures were taken about 90 minutes apart, and you can see the movement of the stars in the night sky over that period of time, as evidenced by the Big Dipper.  In total I took around 180 pictures, with each picture lasting 30 seconds.  The second picture in the stack would have the stars slightly shifted from the first picture; the third picture would have the stars slightly shifted from the second picture, and so on.  I took all the pictures into StarStaX, and it merged all 180 of them into the final star trails picture that can be seen below.

startrails03

And that's basically how you create a star trails picture.  It's amazing that Van Gogh was able to visualize this without any other aids when he created "Starry Night".  In all honesty, it's a fairly simple technique, but the practice allowed me to become familiar with my camera remote, and the importance of keeping all the settings the same for each shot.  The one thing I didn't account for was the possibility of airplanes affecting the final result, which can be seen in the above picture as the diagonal line, but there's not much you can do about planes flying by other than removing the line they create in Photoshop afterwards. 

Anyhow, I felt pretty confident about trying to capture star trails in a more picturesque setting, and I'll talk about that in the next blog post =)

Reminiscing About The Matterhorn Part IV

It was starting to get late, and the sun was dropping fast - I really wanted to stay a bit longer to get the full sunset for my panorama, but missing the train and hiking down the mountain in the dark seemed as wise as bringing a knife to a gunfight, so I packed my gear and headed back to the station. 

Of course, being a photographer, I couldn't help but turn my head back and glance at the Matterhorn every few minutes to see if the sky was producing anything interesting.  Given the lack of time, I should have really just concentrated on getting back to the station, but alas, I couldn't resist getting one more shot in, so against better judgement, I quickly set up my camera and fired off a few frames.

MatterhornSunset01

Hmm, not that inspiring of a shot, is it?  The sky seems a bit washed out, and despite it being overly bright, it's still tough to make out the details in the mountain range.  Well, if you haven't guessed from the previous posts, I'm quite the fan of HDR photography, and as I was setting up my tripod, I already knew I'd need more than one shot to get the picture I wanted.  

MatterhornSunset02

And that's that -  the product of the last set of pictures I took of the Matterhorn that trip (hoping for another one in the future!)  Some people might find it too heavily processed,  but I was going for a surrealistic effect, and it really shines printed on metallic paper.  

Alas, I digress - I sprinted as best I could back to the station, and made it back with 3 minutes to spare.  All in all, it was an exhilarating trip up to Gorergrat, and I highly recommend the experience to anyone interested in the beauty this world has to offer.

To wrap this series of posts up, here's your random fact of the day.  Many people have asked me why I named the panorama "Toblerone Piece".  The reason is actually pretty simple - the logo of Toblerone (the chocolate bar) is actually the Matterhorn - check it out below!

TobleroneBar

Reminiscing about the Matterhorn, Part III

Alert!  This is a longer, geekier post - you've been warned!

So to continue from my last post, I was standing at my vantage point, ready to take what I was hoping to be an epic picture, but I just wasn't feeling it.  The visual roar emanating from the Matterhorn and the Alps was more like pathetic whimper when seen through my camera's viewfinder.  I remember just staring at the Alps, wondering if there was anything I could do to get a better shot.

Being the geek that I was/am, I had come across panoramic "stitches" in my previous readings.  I was kicking myself for not having practiced the technique beforehand, but I figured now was as good a time as ever, and I really had nothing to lose.  

In essence, creating a panoramic image is actually quite simple.  You start at the beginning part of your scene, take a picture, then angle your camera a bit differently to get the next part of the scene, take the picture, and so forth, until you've captured the entire vista.  The trick is to make sure there is some overlap between each picture - the reason for this is that when you bring all the pictures into Photoshop, it uses this overlap to "stitch" all the images together, thereby creating your final panorama.

MatterhornPieces

So that's basically what I did to create the panorama - it looks like I left about 1/3 overlap in each picture.  As a quick aside, I've had many people ask if it took a long time to photoshop the flare (light ray) coming from the sun - I actually got lucky, and as you can see in the third picture, captured it in camera.  As of March 2016, I've never used Photoshop to add anything to a picture that wasn't already present (actually I'm lying - I did do it for one photo, but I'll leave that a mystery for now =P)

MatterhornPanorama

That's what Photoshop spat out based on the 9 photos above.  Pretty neat, eh?  But as I was taking the pictures, I already knew that there would be areas where detail was missing.  The sun was overly bright, and the mountains themselves were a bit dark.  Luckily, I knew I could compensate for this by stacking multiple exposures to create an HDR picture - if you want to know more about this technique, you can read about it here.

But but but, this is a panorama!  How can you do an HDR of a panorama when each panorama itself is X images (in this example, 9)?  Unfortunately, there's no easy way to do this - you have to take multiple exposures of each section.  In this case, the panorama itself is 9 images, and I took 7 exposures (ranging from extremely dark to extremely bright) for each section.  Thus, this example has 9x7=63 pictures.  There's a bit of a debate as to how to do the HDR - do you do an HDR of each section, then combine each HDRed section to make an HDR panorama, or do you create a panorama for each exposure, then HDR each panorama exposure to create your final HDR panorama?  I'm not going to get into the details, but I chose to create the panoramas first, then HDR them, and the main reason was to ensure that the final exposure would be consistent.  

TobleronePieceBlog

Talk about foolishness/unfounded ambition though!  I had never attempted a panorama before, and now I was attempting an HDR panorama.  Through some minor miracle (I think it's because I accidentally left gear behind to appease the Matterhorn deities), it somehow all worked out for me, and after some finessing in software, I was able to get what, as of today, is considered by many to be my signature piece.  

Alas, it was getting late, and I didn't want to miss the train back down to Zermatt.  I quickly packed up my gear and started my mini-hike back to the station.  I'll talk about that in the conclusion to the series of blog posts about the Matterhorn.

*PS - for those that are familiar with panoramas, you'll have noticed I didn't mention anything about parallax or nodal points.  At the time, I didn't have the necessary equipment to compensate for this, but I'll talk about it in more detail in a future post.

Reminiscing About the Matterhorn, Part II

As I started my mini-hike for a better vantage spot, I noticed a small hill in the distance, and given the time constraints (I had to be back to catch the train back down in a couple of hours), made the quick decision to capture the Alps and the Matterhorn from there.

On my way there, I did notice this small cross seemingly bolted to a rocky extension.  I really wanted to make the climb up to see if there were any inscriptions, but given the time crunch, decided to hurry on to my vantage point.  Alas, the mystery of that cross will continue to haunt me.

I eventually made it to the bottom of the hill, and after a short but somewhat steep climb, finally made it to my desired shooting spot.  To my surprise though, there were two American tourists already there, enjoying the view!

What stunned me the most though was the fact that Rob, the gentleman in the picture, was wearing shorts.  Granted, it wasn't freezing outside, but I was dressed in a fall jacket with an Abercrombie hoodie underneath, so I knew it wasn't warm either.  Anyhow, Rob was kind enough to snap a quick picture of me, and this shot serves as my lone piece of proof that I was actually there.

Sunset was fast approaching, so I quickly set up my tripod and mounted my camera, with the 14-24 F2.8 lens as my weapon of choice.  I was ready to take the picture, but after looking through the camera's viewfinder, was disappointed with what I saw.  Even at 14mm, I just didn't have enough width to capture the majesty of the Alps, and because of the perspective distortion of a wide-angle lens (objects close to you appear to be much larger than objects further away), the mountain range itself appeared tiny.  It's at this point I recalled some reading I had previously done on panoramic pictures and how to capture them.  I had never attempted one before, but now was as good a time as any, and I'll go through the process in my next post.

Reminiscing about the Matterhorn, Part I

During the 2015 and 2016 Artist Projects, most of the people who visited my booth mentioned the picture that caught their eye was "Toblerone Piece.  Given its popularity, I figured I'd share my experiences of getting there and capturing the scene in the next few blog posts.

I visited Switzerland in 2013, and not knowing much about the country, I used trusty old tripadvisor to recommend some places to see.  Zermatt was listed as the top attraction as it served as the base city to see the Matterhorn, so I caught a train to Zermatt to see what all the fuss was about.

zermatt01.jpg

I can't quite remember if these were taken from the train to Zermatt, or the train from Zermatt to the Matterhorn observation site (Gornergrat), but whatever the case, the view was just beautiful.  Imagine getting to wake up to that every day - incredible.  

There's a cog train that takes you up to Gornergrat, which serves as a vantage point to see the Matterhorn, but the train itself provides some amazing views.  Here's a pro tip for you aspiring photographers - make sure you have your camera on you when you expect to see breathtaking vistas, because this photographer had to furiously rummage through his bag to grab his camera and quickly snap a few pictures =P

When the train finally arrived at Gornergrat, I was immediately greeted with a great view of the Swiss Alps, with the chiseled peak of the Matterhorn serving as the exclamation point.  I took a few pictures, but then realized you could actually hike from the observation deck to a vantage point of your choosing.  I'll talk more about that in my next blog post =)

The Artist Project 2015!

Well, The Artist Project 2015 has come and gone, and what a great experience it was!  It didn't quite start out that way, as when I arrived at my booth (after having put some things in it), I noticed this:

 
TAPpole.jpg
 

Given all of us paid the same amount for booths of the same size, I felt it was a bit unfair that I got stuck with a pole, but the show had to go on, and you know what they say, when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade!

 
booth.jpg
 

Eventually I finally got set up, and opening night was a blast - they had a bunch of vendors giving away free stuff (ie sandwiches, beer, wine, macaroons to name a few), and the turnout was amazing!  This was definitely 100 steps up from the Toronto Art Expo that I participated in last year, and it set an upbeat mood for the rest of the show. 

Initially I felt a bit intimidated being surrounded by so many incredible artists, but as the show went on, I received quite a bit positive feeback from all the people who stopped by my booth, and I really started to enjoy myself more.  I have to hand it to the organizers of The Artist Project - they did a great job at marketing the show, and the sheer volume of patrons who attended is a testament to that.  Even with the shoddy weather on Saturday, people still made it to the show to see what was on display - without this turnout, the show definitely wouldn't have been the great experience it was.

Finally, I'd just like to thank a few people:  Vin Singh, my neighbor during the show, (an excellent photographer himself http://www.bykulvinder.com/) for lending a helping hand (I wouldn't have been able to mount the Alps panorama without him), and for his upbeat personality; Claire Taylor, the director of the show, for organizing a great show, and for continuing to work with me on "pole-gate"; to all the people that took the time to stop at my booth - your feedback was confidence boosting and invaluable; to the patrons that were enamored enough with my work to actually purchase it - thank you for believing in my art and for your support; and finally to my wife, who has always encouraged me to take more photos and has been by my side throughout my entire photographic journey - I couldn't have done it without you =)

Dynamic Range, and High Dynamic Range Photography

I know I mentioned in my last post that I'd talk about building a photo from things we can practice with, but I'm actually gonna save that for another post.  The Artist Project is right around the corner (February 19-22 at the Better Living Centre), so I'm going to switch gears to landscape photography!  

Beware!  This post is somewhat long as I've tried to include some teaching points. 

We've all taken pictures, and we've all had that moment where we look at our picture and think, "#&$*@! - that totally didn't look like what I actually saw!"  For example, the sky is the right exposure (brightness), but the foreground is so dark everything is a silhouette, or the foreground is the right exposure, but the sky is not the colourful blue it's supposed to be.  The main culprit here is your camera's dynamic range.

Huh?  Dynamic range?  It sounds complicated, but the concept is pretty simple.  I'm going to explain it in terms of your computer monitor first, then apply the same principle to a camera.  Here's a little grayscale chart that we've all seen before:

DRchart

Your monitor's dynamic range is its ability to see each box as being unique, starting with white on the left, and black on the right.  If your monitor has a limited dynamic range, some of the boxes will look the same (for example, +5 and +4 might look exactly the same, and -4 and -5 might look exactly the same), and that's due to the fact that the monitor just isn't able to display all the levels of brightness between pure white and pure black.  If you're lucky and have a monitor with a large dynamic range, you'll be able to see each box as being distinct.

Now instead of pure white and pure black, let's think of the +5 as being a really bright part of a scene, and the -5 as being a really dark area of the same scene.  Your camera's dynamic range is its ability to show detail across all ranges between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.  If your camera has a limited dynamic range, you might be able to see the bright areas, but the darker areas will just be black, or you might be able to see the dark areas, but the brighter areas will just appear as white with no detail.  

So why does all this technical mumbo jumbo really matter?  Our eyes have a larger apparent dynamic range than our cameras, and are thus able to see more detail across a scene.  Here's a picture I took of St. Peter's Basilica at sunset:

sunsetdark.jpg

I took this picture with a Nikon D800, which has excellent dynamic range, yet, as you can tell, although the sky is the correct brightness and color, you can barely see any detail in the foreground - it's just too dark.  This definitely isn't what my eyes saw!!  You might be asking, "well, why didn't you change the settings of your camera to make sure the buildings were properly exposed?"  Well, luckily for you, I have that picture as well!  

SPBbright.jpg

Yikes!  Yes, you can now see the bridge and the buildings in the foreground, but that sky is U-G-L-Y, and St. Peter's Basilica looks terrible.

We've all taken pictures that resemble the above two shots, and while software will allow us to bring some of the detail back, it's usually not enough.  So how can we save our pictures!?  Wouldn't it be awesome if we could take the sky, Basilica, and water from the darker picture, and combine it with the buildings from the brighter one?  Indeed it would be awesome, and that's where HDR (high dynamic range) photography comes in.

With HDR, you take at least three shots - usually one that exposes for the darkest area of the scene, one that exposes for the normal parts, and one that exposes for the brightest ones.  This is best done on a tripod as this ensures each picture will perfectly align with the others in the HDR software (misalignment may cause weird artifacts to appear in your final picture).  Once you have these pictures, you can use software (ie Photoshop or HDR dedicated software) to merge them into one properly exposed photo.  Think of the software as taking each individual photo and stacking them one by one on top of another.  It then only chooses the parts from each that are the correct exposure, and then spits out what it considers a properly adjusted photo.  Now the software isn't perfect, and you'll usually need to make some manual corrections in photoshop, but what these programs can do is still incredibly amazing.  

The above photographs are part of the set I used to create the final HDR photo.  Yes, when I travel, I pretty much always carry my tripod with me, because I know I'll need to use HDR to create my photographic art.  It's definitely a bit more of a burden, but it's almost always worth it.  Here's the final HDR of the Basilica shot:

hdr.jpg

Now that's much closer to what the scene looked like in reality!  Amazing what HDR can do for a photo, eh?  That being said, HDR isn't everything - you still need to find a perspective that is appealing, you still need to compose the image well, and you still need good photographic technique.  However, if you've mastered the fundamentals and are looking for other avenues to push your photography further, HDR is definitely a step in that direction =)

 

Lights, Camera, TAP Water!

I love experimenting with strobes, and one day I wondered what running water from a faucet would look like with a very quick flash.  

To start, I took a picture of water running from a tap at 1/250 of a second (with a continuous light source):

 
 

Although it's kinda cool (it sorta resembles a painting actually), it's not exactly what I was looking for.  I wanted to see what flowing water looked like if time was frozen, and for that, you need to use a flash with a short duration.  

A quick teaching point for those who aren't experienced with strobes - for most pictures, your effective shutter speed (I made that term up) is your actual shutter speed, because the light around you is on for the entire shutter duration (that is, the light is always on during the period your camera shutter opens and closes.  Let's say you are taking an outdoor picture lit by the sun.  If your shutter speed is 1/250th of a second, the sun is "on" for that entire time, so your effective shutter speed is 1/250th of a second).  However, let's say you can create an environment where you only have one light source (ie a strobe), and you have that strobe create a very quick burst of light (say 1/8000th of a second), then go dark.  Even if your camera shutter is open for 1/250th of a second, because the only light it sees lasts 1/8000th of a second, your effective shutter speed is 1/8000th of a second.  I hope that made sense!

Okay, back to tap water.  For the next photo, the actual shutter speed of the photo is the same (1/250th of a second), but in the previous pic, the light was on for that full duration, so that's what flowing water looks like at 1/250th of a second.  In the following picture, I used a Broncolor strobe set at 1/8000th of a second to try and freeze motion.  

 
 

Pretty cool, right?  Maybe a tad geeky, but that's basically what water out of a tap looks like at 1/8000th of a second.  Now, there's still a bit of blur in the picture, although I must preface this by stating this picture is basically a straight RAW converted to JPEG - no sharpening has been applied whatsoever.  That said, the cause of the blur might partly be due to lack of critical focus (I used the Nikon 105mm macro, and achieving front to back focus is tougher as you're much closer to the subject), but before I took the shot, I placed a plastic business card in the flowing water and made sure the text was tack sharp, so focus shouldn't be the issue.  My guess then is that even at 1/8000th of a second, the water is still flowing fast enough to cause a slight blur, and hence, a bit of softness in the picture.

Finally, I decided to try taking the same picture with just a normal speedlight (Nikon SB910) at 1/128 power (manual mode) to see what the picture would look like.  Given that the speedlight is about 10% the price of the Broncolor strobe, I expected the results to be more blurry (ie the flash duration would be longer than 1/8000 of a second), and here's what it looked like:

 
 

Whoa!  The results are every bit as good, if not better, than what the Broncolor produced.  Now, the Broncolor picture was stopped down to f11 and the SB one f8 (meaning that the Broncolor's light output was twice as intense as the speedlight), but if you don't need the power, and if distance to the subject is not an issue (in this picture, the SB was basically 20cm from the running water), the speedlight can produce results every bit as good as a significantly more expensive unit.  Of course with the Broncolor Move, you get color temperature accuracy, much less variance of light output between shots, the added benefit of significantly more power when needed (at a much lower flash duration as well), and a host of professional light modifiers (amongst other things), but this is still pretty incredible from the little SB unit.

Finally, here's a picture of both the Broncolor and the Nikon, with some sharpening applied (SB on the left, Broncolor on the right) - pretty neat, eh?

 
 

Now some of you might be wondering what the point of this all is as taking pictures of tap water really isn't going to take a photographer that far.  That's true, but the ultimate goal is to take things we can practice with (in this case, running tap water), and apply them to a more complex shot.  I'll show one application of this in my next blog post!

The Artist Project 2015!

I'll be exhibiting at The Artist Project in Toronto at the Better Living Center (booth 826) from February 19-22!  There are going to be lots of amazing artists there, and I'm really excited at having the chance to meet them, as well as all the patrons of the arts who will be checking the show out!  Now it's on to picking which pictures to exhibit!  Any ideas people?  Looking forward to seeing you all there!

Information about the show can be found at www.theartistproject.com

New Site!

Sorry for the downtime - I've been playing around with different website creators and have decided on using Squarespace to power my site.  While the old site performed well, I found blogging to be a bit more cumbersome, and on top of that, they didn't have a simple means of adding a cart for interested parties to purchase artwork.  Squarespace allows me to fix those two issues, and it just took some time to recreate the site using their engine.

I'm going to blog more often from now on, and although this site is mainly about landscapes, it's a bit tougher for me to continually blog about just that topic, so I'll also be blogging about lighting with off camera flash/strobes, which happens to be my other photography love.  Hopefully you will find the material presented here entertaining and informative!