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Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part I (The Earth is not Flat)

Better.” An obviously subjective term. Most of my blogs over the years have been directed at photographers or at least, people with interest in photography. In this series, I am addressing some of the things I see on Social Media. Admittedly, I am an “old” guy (another subjective term). So my Social Media exposure is relatively limited (like Facebook – remember when that was for “young” people?) 🙂 .  The earth is not flat. But we could excuse the casual observer who didn’t know better. When you look off into the distance, you see a horizon, and for all our eyes tell us, you could fall off the edge of that horizon. Except that we know it is not true. We learned it in grade school (or perhaps before). But there is another thing: that horizon we see off in the distance – it is always level.

smartphone users are primarily who I am directing these suggestions to

Today, there are almost 2 billion photos uploaded daily to Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat, WhatsAp, and the like. 2 billionPer day.  I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting my head around that. I probably see 20 to 40 a day.  That makes my sample only about 0.00000001%!  But I think it’s enough to support my observations. Modern “smart” cellphones have focused (yes, pun intended) on quality image-making software and hardware.  The newest generation of iPhone and Android (particularly sector leader, Samsung) smartphones have remarkable lenses and pretty capable software for digital image capture. They are perhaps as much responsible for this explosion of posted images as any other one factor.  I would guess that about 1.99 billion of the 2 billion daily posted images were made with smartphones. So smartphone users are primarily who I am directing these suggestions to. The intent here is not to be judgemental, and if my comments offend anyone, I apologize in advance.  No offense meant.  Rather, I am hoping I will suggest some things everyone can do to make those images that all your online friends remark are “beautiful” to, truly beautiful, both aesthetically and technically.  Since you are posing the image, we will assume aesthetics are to your liking. What I am talking about here is the technical qualities that make an image better.  So this series of blogs will address some things I see.

Horizons

Tilted Horizon

This is the single most common fault I see. The vast majority of images I see online, which otherwise are very nice images in many cases, suffer from this malady. As I look at them, I often wonder aloud, “How there is any water left in any ocean or lake on our planet?” Because based on the photographic representations I see, it should all have drained by now. 🙂 There is no special natural talent that skilled and experienced photographers have to get this right. In fact, I don’t believe there is any one of us who see things levelly through the lens without aid of some kind. I had been shooting seriously for many years when my friend, Al Utzig mentioned some tilted horizons on a couple of my images. Unlike some of the images I see on line, they were very subtle, and I didn’t see it. Al suggested that I use a level device on my camera and I have done so ever since. These cost a few dollars and are an invaluable aid, but do some homework when ordering online, as I found some of them were notoriously not true to level (I check mine against a carpenters level). I was surprised at the difference between the “leveled” image, and what I thought was level with just my eyes.  And, my very limited empirical data tells me that most of us lean to the right. But the mechanical level simply doesn’t lie. 🙂

“How there is any water left in any ocean or lake on our planet?”

So how do we fix the problem?  Of course you cannot use the mechanical bubble level on your smartphone.  And it is really only useful when shooting from a tripod – which most of you don’t/won’t do. The fix is really pretty easy and there are three ways I can suggest that will be very easy for any user to adopt. The first two are in-camera and probably the best solution for snapping and posting photos.

Hotshoe Bubble Level

1) Virtually every digital camera today has settings that superimpose grid-lines on the viewer (and on your phone, if the setting isn’t there, “there is an app for that”). This is a very useful feature, and in my view, should always be activated for your camera.  Here is a very good explanation of use of and turning this feature on for both Android and iPhones. The grid lines are really intended as an aid to composition of the photo (more later),  but can be useful where there is a clear horizon line in the image, like the ubiquitous sunset over water image.  If your phone is older and doesn’t have grid lines, there are any number of camera apps available for download that will do this, as well as the other things we will be mentioning.

Viewing Screen Grid Lines

2) Many cameras also have a built-in electronic “level.”  “I have that always on” for all of my digital cameras (I still use the bubble level when shooting from a tripod).  As I have moved to the “small camera,” “street shooting,” hand-held mode in recent years, this has become an invaluable aid to me. It works – I think – better than the grid lines (the grid lines are always on also, as they have another important use, which I will cover in an upcoming blog). Using both gives you the ability to cross-check how things are working. Use is simple. All but the very newest phones (the new iPhone does) do not have this feature and you will have to download an app. There are different variations of this tool, but they all work pretty much the same. There is a fixed horizontal line and a rotating line (usually green or red), or two rotating lines that turn (usually) green when level is accomplished. Just insure that the horizontal lines match up. The tool is superimposed on the viewing screen and doesn’t interfere with composition or shooting.

One of many different variations of a built-in “electronic” level

The last way is a bit more work, and I suspect that few will go to this step. 3) Most of the time, horizon issues can be fixed with digital photo processing software. Of course this adds some steps and an element of complication to the seemingly straightforward process of taking the picture and then “sharing” it somewhere. But if you want the image to look good, it is worth doing if you didn’t get it during the shot. Older photo software required some loss of parts of the edges of the image (“cropping”) when fixing tilted horizons.  These days most software is so “smart” that it fixes those edges pretty well (Photoshop calls this “content-aware” cropping).  My screen capture didn’t pick it up, but when you move the cursor to one of the bracketed corners, a curved arrow appears showing the direction of rotation and you just “grab” the corner and rotate it until the horizon is straight.  Photoshop software allows placement of “guides” (the blue line near the horizon) both horizontally and vertically to help in determining level. The iphone and android stores all have apps that can be downloaded for either a nominal fee or free, which do post-processing (like Snapseed) and many of them have the capability to rotate an image after it has been shot and stored on the phone.

Correcting a Tilted Horizon in Post-Processing Software

So now you have no excuses for posting crooked images 🙂 . I’ll be watching for more level horizons on Facebook.

NOTE:  As I worked on this series of blog posts, I fiddled with my own smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S7), and learned that the native camera app is pretty lacking.  This has got me looking for an adequate substitute app.  What I am finding is that it does not appear that many of these app developers are photographers (or perhaps more accurately, they don’t shoot the way I do).  So many of them have lots of “bells and whistles,” but are lacking in one or more important features. Most notable is the level app.  I can find plenty of stand-alone level apps, but they do not seem to integrate well with the native camera app.  Looking at a full-featured app, I am currently trying out an app called “Snap Camera.”  I will try to remember to report my findings.  One thing is that this is not a free app ($1.99 on Google PlayStore, which I do not think is unreasonable for the benefit – assuming it works as well as I hope).

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Right Time; Right Place Photography

Porcupine Mountains Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Recently, I went through a review and update of my LightCentric Photography photo website.  As I was systematically checking captioning information (among other things), a couple of the images made me pause and reflect on their circumstances as involving a particularly memorable moment of for whatever reason, just being in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes it was planned. Sometimes it was just serendipity.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been other times and images. There have been too many photographic memories to cover, including trips to New Mexico, Alaska, New England, California, and around the world.

In some ways, the Porcupine Mountains image is my most memorable photo. Taken back in the days of film, I made this photograph on my very first “dedicated photography trip.” I spent a long weekend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) for the first time since my childhood. The trip was planned with much anticipation of fall color imagery.  For the most part, even though I was there during the first week in October, I was still fairly early for foliage, and was largely disappointed in that aspect of the trip. The trip motivated many more similar excursions to the U.P., mostly in the fall.  I arrived at “The Escarpment,” in the Porcupine Mountains late on a Saturday afternoon. From the Escarpment, you can view the Lake of The Clouds, which is often photographed – especially during peak foliage. Conditions were not what I had hoped for.  It was cloudy, with a 40 plus mph wind.  I had seen images of Lake of The Clouds, and that was my goal for this part of the trip.  Foliage conditions were just starting, and I just did not see the image I had visualized. To make matters worse, the forecast called for worsening conditions, with all-out rain by morning.  So I took a number of images, using a much faster shutter speed and lower aperture combination than I normally would have, bracing the tripod against the wind buffets with my own weight (seemingly counterproductive).  Unlike these days, you could not see a representation of the result on the back of the camera.  I would wait until I returned home, and the photographic processor completed developing my slides.  I didn’t expect much from this location. But on the light table, this one image jumped out at me. It is perhaps the only “keeper” from that take. As I viewed it, I realized that the contrast between the lingering greens, the precocious reds, and the developing oranges and yellows, was actually more visually interesting – indeed satisfying – than some of those images that I had seen that were a complete wash of fall color. There is a photographer’s saying:  “F8 and be there.” I don’t think this was F8, but I was there, and this is what I found. The image here, is prepped for printing, and may look a bit saturated. But I did not touch the saturation sliders in Photoshop.  Instead, I used an old technique (surpassed for most of us by plugins such as NIK Viveza 2), converting the scanned image to LAB color space and making adjustments to the A and B curves. This image has continued to be my best selling photo. It hangs in the main conference room of my law firm’s offices, and draws many comments.

Mad River
Waitsfield, VT
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

In 2006, after much bragging to my best buddy, Rich Pomeroy, about the “best fall foliage in the world, bar none,” he called my bluff and we took a week long trip to Vermont. We had take many business trips together before, but this was our first “together” photography adventure. I am delighted to say that we have made numerous other photo trips, and will make many more in future years.  But this one turned out to be kind of a bust. We went during the last part of September and very early October. All during the week, we wished we had waited a week, as the foliage was again in very early (almost non-existent) stages. We worked hard to find some foliage and though we had a lot of fun and made some memorable images, it wasn’t what we had anticipated. Determined to “find” those colors I remembered from my youth in the 1970’s in Vermont, I returned – alone this time – in 1997, a week later. During that trip, I spend a couple nights in central Vermont, driving along it famed Route 100. Mother Nature can be fickle, and the colors were – once again – not as nice as I had hoped (this time a bit past peak in many places).  One morning, I was headed for a waterfall that has turned out to be (in my opinion) unremarkable;  Moss Glen Falls in Granville. But on my way, I got waylaid by a vision:  some color off in the distance of a scenic turnout.  The turnout turned out (see what I did there 🙂 ) to be a nice series of drops in the Mad River. The Mad River is really just a stream or creek that is not really navigable.  It is also the namesake of “Mad River Canoes,” originally built by hand in Waitsfield, where this very same stream wandered through his back yard. A drizzly rain was falling, but I donned my wading boots and spent 2 1/2 hours shooting there.  The image here was actually on a return trip in 2010, when I brought Rich back to “prove” my assertions about Vermont foliage 🙂 . That morning was a magical time. I was all alone with the subject, which remains a really photogenic series of waterfalls.

Otter Cliffs Sunrise
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

In 2009, Rich and I made another memorable photo trip; this time to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. Bar Harbor is a quaint little touristy town with just enough non-photographic things to keep our spouses entertained (well, for about a day that is – but we were there for a week 🙂 ). Acadia is probably one of the most photographed National Parks. There a numerous books about the Park Loop Road, and all the different photographic venues. Otter Cliffs is one, but it is most often viewed more distantly, from another cliff to the north.  From the vantage point, you cannot even see this cobblestone beach. I had a friend who strongly recommended that I “work” to find this spot, which is a cobblestone beach that is not well documented or marked (at least, it wasn’t in 2009). The directions in the books don’t really reveal it, but with some perseverance, and some insight from him, we did find it. We visited it for 3 successive mornings in the pre-dawn, before we got this one. There is really nothing like being in a location like this, literally alone, and watching the sunrise and the morning develop. It was a location worth “working” for.

Burton Hill Road
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Vermont has a special place in my heart. Readers here know I make period trips to Vermont to photograph; usually during the vaunted fall foliage season. I wrote my first eBook on this very topic.  As I did my homework, planning each trip, researching and hobnobbing with members of the Scenes of Vermont forum, I “met” two of my wonderful friends, both of whom also happen to be talented photographers and writers. Al Utzig and I carried on a e-mail correspondence for several years before I finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person. We were good friends by that time and the face-to-face didn’t change that (for me at least – I’ll let Al be the judge of it 🙂 ). Carol Smith, who many of you know as my co-author for the current edition of Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage,” was a frequent poster on the Scenes forums and we were all soon to learn, an extremely knowledgeable and observant resource for wannabe Vermont photographers. She was of immeasurable help to me on the first edition and it was a logical progression for her to co-write a second edition which contains much more information, primarily from Carol. In the process we also became good “online” friends. In 2010, Rich and I returned to Vermont. I was there for a week, but Rich was only able to join me on the southern part of the trip for about 3 days.  This trip began with a group of us (particularly Al, Carol and me) meeting at Carol’s Barton house in anticipation of a next-day, early morning “tour,” led by Carol. This was my first face-to-face meeting with Carol, and to my surprise, she still loves me :-). We started at Bean Pond along the US 5 highway, for a foggy sunrise over the pond. The time and images were magical, but while Al and I gushed, Carol promised that the best was yet to come. And boy, was she right. The Burton Hill Road image is by far my personal favorite Vermont image, and perhaps my most “successful.” After others had left, Carol and her very patient husband, guided me around several other areas, including the Craftsbury Common image that appears on the cover of the Vermont eBook. But that morning is one of the most memorable times of any photographic trip. And I got to enjoy it with two of my very favorite friends.

Eagle in Flight
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Some years were big travel years for me. Others not so much. 2010 was one of those big years. In addition to another trip to Vermont, my wife, son and I went on our first cruise; the Inside Passage from Vancouver, B.C., to Whittier, Alaska. It introduced us to cruising (which to my surprise, I really liked), which has opened travel doors to us throughout the world. There were hundreds of images taken on that trip to Alaska, with some pretty great photographic opportunities.  But the most memorable image of that trip came as a complete surprise to me. We were signed up for a “deadliest catch” look-alike excursion (sans the cold and ice and heavy oceans). When we came ashore, one of the crew who met us saw my “big camera” and said “I see you came prepared. We are going to get some eagle photos for you today.”  Right. He was a tour guide. He certainly wasn’t going to promise me crappy photos.  🙂 I think we were scheduled to be out for 3 1/ or 4 hours, during which they talked about the history of these fishing boats (the boat was an actual boat used in the Bering Sea, just like the ones on the “Deadliest Catch” series, which had been shipwrecked, and then salvaged and retro-fitted with observation seating).  All very interesting, but no “knock your socks off” eagle photos. We saw some, but they were a long way in the distance. At the end of the cruise, they announced that they had a special treat for us, and took us by an uninhabited island, which was in native waters (by U.S. treaty) and therefore not subject to U.S. laws. As I looked, I saw a solitary eagle perched in dead tree. O.k. Then I suddenly heard “plop.” “Plop, plop.” The crew was up in the flybridge tossing bait into the water. The skies next to our boat suddenly turned into what I can only describe as a air to air dogfight as about 30 eagles all appeared, diving and often fighting for the food. I really wasn’t prepared and it all happened in about a 5 – 10 minute sequence. But in spite of my ill-preparedness, I was able to get several good shots. This one is my favorite. I doubt that I will ever get an opportunity to photograph eagles in flight from that close a position again. As our first cruise, it was hard to have it come to an end, with so many amazing and new experiences. But it did. It marked the end of a great trip – and the beginning of many more.

San Francisco Bay Bridge
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

In 2011, instead of a fall foliage trip, my wife and I opted to spend a week in California during the first week in October. My daughter lives in San Francisco, so we used that as a staging point, with an overnight excursion to Napa for some wine tasting. Lots of memories from that trip. My daughter’s place at the time was in downtown, south of Market Street (SOMA). She was just two blocks south of Market and just a few blocks west of the Bay Bridge, the Embarcadero and the eastern part of San Francisco bay. I was up early and somewhere on the street each morning by sunrise or earlier (the 3 hour time differential was a positive, making it easy for me to wake up and roust early). What I really noticed was the relative stillness, just before the world “wakes up.” I made numerous images of the Bay Bridge, which is a favorite subject of mine (I prefer these images to those I have made of the more famous Golden Gate). But this one, I think, best illustrates that early morning pre-dawn calm and stillness.

Blue Angels
Fleet Week
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

That trip had other memories. We made friends with a couple of the winery owners, and in later years would travel with one of them, to the Caribbean and to Ireland, as well as returning to the vineyard when back in California. But the unexpected and incredible opportunity of shooting the air show put on by – mostly – the U.S. Navy, during its San Francisco “Fleet Week,” is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We shot from the ground for over an hour as the planes flew low over us. I worked hard to capture a “bloom” from the jet fighters as they broke the sound barrier. Because sound and light do not travel at the same speed, it was touch to anticipate. I got just one. But am pretty pleased with it.

New River Gorge Lookout
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Returning to California, Rich and I were able to sneak in a quick 3-day trip to West Virginia’s Babcock State Park, to photograph the often photographed Grist Mill in fall foliage. While we probably missed the peak near the mill, we were able to find peak foliage around Boley Lake in the park. What made this trip special was my first opportunity to meet one of my photographic mentors and a great inspiration to me, James Moore. Jim is an uber-talented nature photographer with many sales and publications; primarily in and around West Virginia. We had become on-line friends a year or two before, and he had a group he was guiding there photographing earlier in the week. Jim was still there when we arrived, but left early the next morning.  We had a nice time to chat and he gave us some great insight about when and where to shoot in the park. In 2012, Jim did me the great honor of asking me to act as a guide for one of his photography workshops in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Jim had heard a lot about it but had never visited there. We spent a great week, learning, shooting, and watching the foliage develop from pre-peak to full peak conditions. Jim had some health problems later in life and sadly those of us who knew and admired him have lost touch. For the West Virginia image here, my model was Jim, and the New River Gorge lookout was one of his favorite spots in the park.

Oxbow Bend
Snake River, Wyoming
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

2012, marked yet another photography trip with my buddy, Rich (and spouses). We joke a lot because I am a “planner” when it comes to these trips. I have usually figured out what I want to shoot, how to get there, how long it will take, and what time of day to be on site. For the most part, Rich is happy to let me do that, and quite often comes home with the better image. 🙂 A couple years before, Rich had attended a photography workshop in Jackson Hole, and the Grand Teton National Park. We both wanted to go again. This time I showed up and Rich was the guide. What a fun and memorable week with many great photo opportunities. As an old school photographer (or maybe just an old photographer), when it comes to scenic shots, I think in terms of a print. What we all want to bring back is a “wall-hanger.” Over the years I have made, printed and framed a number of my images. None has been better that this image of Oxbow Bend. We arrived here (I think the second time) in the pre-dawn hours and there was frost on everything. As the sun rose, the warmer water temps created a wonderful low fog over the bend in the river. May some white cotton-candy clouds would have enhanced this, but it was a great morning and I knew walking away from this shoot that this would be a wall-hanger.

Venice
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

2013 was a huge year for us. My wife came from a military family, so she had done some limited world travel as a young person. But in our adult lives, we had not traveled out of the U.S. except for a couple trips to the Caribbean, and Canada (which really doesn’t seem like it counts 🙂 ). We decided to kick our cruising up a notch, and booked a Mediterranean Cruise. In many ways, it may have been the most memorable of all of our cruises. It was our third cruise on the Princess Lines, and we were booked on their newest, and best ship. We were excited to see the world over the next two weeks, disembarking from Venice and ending in Barcelona. The cruise ship decided it wouldn’t cooperate, and our cruise was cut short. There was, however, a happy ending to that.

Gondolas
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

As is our custom, we planned to spend 3-4 days in our originating port city before boarding the cruise ship. We walked around Venice for 3 days and boarded the ship thankful for an immediate “day at sea,” exhausted.  But what I can say about Venice is that it is wall-to-wall “eye-candy” for the photographer. I have hundreds of Venice images, but the two shown here represent moments that separate themselves from the others.  The Gondolier was a case of right time, right place. I was looking for shots, and heard them coming. I found this setup and was blessed with wonderful early morning sunlight. The covered gondolas is not original on my part. I had seen at least one other photographer do this. What it would need was very early light in order to make an exposure long enough to capture the motion of the rocking gondolas. This meant either very early morning, or evening. I chose morning because there would be less people, and less activity on the Grand Canal, producing just some gentle rocking. I use this image on my Facebook LightCentric Photography Page Cover.

Lombard Street
San Francisco
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

In 2014, we returned again to San Francisco for several days. I made more trips to the Bay Bridge. I also walked to the San Francisco Giants ball stadium. My daughter took us to Lands End, to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a different perspective, and to Jones Beach. But what I remember the most is walking from our SOMA location, all the way across town and uphill to Lombard Street (the famous s-curved, brick-paved, switchback street that is a “must photograph” when you visit). I made the usual images (except for the nighttime shot with the streaky headlights). Then I looked for something else to shoot. A unique perspective that possibly nobody else had ever done. I think I might have been successful.

Sailboat
Narragansett Bay, Newport
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

In 2016, I made a last minute trip to join my buddy, Rich, who was in Newport, Rhode Island for business. I flew in on Thursday evening and we spent two days shooting.  Friday morning, I was on my own and walked around the downtown area and the wharfs, making lots of photos of boats, buildings, etc. Everything was a more or less nautical theme. That evening we went to shoot a lighthouse that Rich had found earlier in the week (Castle Hill Light). This was a photogenic lighthouse, and as we often do, we arrived early to scout best perspectives for shooting. And then we waited on the light. It is often worth waiting for the absolute last of the light to see if anything magical happens in the sky. To our west, the sun set over Narragansett Bay, with beautiful orange skies, but no real photographic interest. But as we watched and waited, this white sailboat approached and passed. Knowing a little about sailing from my past, I made note of the wind, and calculated that the boat (it was actually a large, tour charter boat on the last leg of the day) would come about and come back toward us. I quickly swiveled my tripod head around, took some metering measurements, and waited to frame the boat where I wanted it to be.  I knew I would get 2-3 shots at best of this quickly moving boat.

Tokyo Tower
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

2018 has been kind of a slow year, photographically. But we absolutely made up for that in 2017. In July, we spent a week in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. We saw many amazing sights and I did my usual early morning walking around both cities. I was intrigued by Tokyo Tower, lit at night, and worked hard to find a good place to photograph it from. I took a few from a couple different places. But it turns out that the best I could do was through the window of our Tokyo Hotel.

Santorini, Greece
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

In September, we made our 3rd, and much anticipated Mediterranean Cruise. We again spent several days in Venice. One of the other places I had seen and wanted to shoot was the Greek Island of Santorini. We had a wonderful tour guide, who happened to also be a photographer, and he the right time and place for us to be to get shots I am certain I would never have found without his help, in spite of the research I had done.  Did I mention that Venice is “eye-candy” for photographers? Ditto Santorini.

Well.  This was an interesting exercise for me.  I tried to keep it to not more than 15 images. There were many more that perhaps fit the bill. And I am sure there will be more to come. As always, thanks for reading.

 

Photographing the Michigan U.P.; Update – Iron Mountain Area

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

As I noted in my recent blog about my quick U.P. trip this fall, I did have an opportunity to scout two new areas.  The first was the Escanaba Area, and particularly, the Garden and Stonington Peninsulas, which I covered in the previous blog.  My plan was to to shoot as much as possible around the good light, but if the weather was uncooperative, to make the approximately 1 hour drive to Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Perhaps unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative all weekend.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Perhaps best known these days for its provenance for nationally noted sports coaches, Iron Mountain’s welcome sign boasts of being “the “proud hometown of Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci.” But it certainly is also world-renowned for its namesake.  At one time, Iron Mountain held one of the largest iron ore producing and processing resources in the world.  There is still a mine there, which can be toured.  While I am not sure I would consider the area a photographer’s destination, a day trip would probably be filled with opportunities.  The color in Iron Mountain was still nice, but well past “peak” when I was there in the second week of October. Escanaba is approximately 50 miles further west (from Escanaba) on U.S. 2. Being inland and at a higher elevation, this area’s probable normal “peak” is late September to early October.

Fumee Falls
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The area is blessed with some nice natural phenomena, including rivers, waterfalls, rocky foothills, and lakes.  Just east, and outside of town, there is a roadside stop for Fumee Falls.  Fumee is perhaps the most accessible of the numerous waterfalls in the Michigan U.P.  This was my first trip to these falls.  There are two drops visible from the roadside, with a small, photogenic footbridge across the stream at the bottom of the second and larger drop.  Many years of visitor traffic has resulted in significant erosion of the original falls area, and today, viewing is restricted to the boardwalks which border the falls.  While this perhaps limits the photographer’s access, it hopefully preserves the falls for the future.  Although the light was terrible, I was able to make a couple “record images.”

Lake Antoine
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Just to the Northeast of the downtown area, is a nice small lake, Lake Antoine.  The northern 1/2 of the city of Iron Mountain borders the west endo of the lake. There is a significant residential presence around the west side of the lake.  On the east end, is Antoine Park, a public beach, picnic and boat launch.  I found a small memorial park with a fishing pier on the way to the lake, and make a couple images.    Antione Lake Road loops around the lake and crosses U.S. 2 both to the east of and to the north of town.

Understory; Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

About 4 miiles east of downtown is the small community of Quinnesec.  In about 2 1/4 miles, you will come to County Road 10 (a/k/a “Upper Pine Creek Road), which goes north, to The Fumee Recreation Area. The entrance is marked, but it is a rustic sign, about 1 mile north of U.S. 2.  There is a parking lot and no motorized travel is allowed beyond. There are two lakes, “Little Fumee Lake,” and “Big Fumee Lake.”  The recreation area has several trails around both lakes, with a total of about 8 miles of trails, which are used by walkers, runners, bicyclists and horseback riders.  I walked the short trail around “Little Fumee.”  Again, the light was awful, but I could see the possibility of some nice imagery.

Fumee Recreation Area
Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

On the county road in to the recreation area, I also found some nice farm scenery.  The shot here is on what appears to be a private road, called “Baclack Road.”

Farm near Iron Mountain, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

 

Preferred Post – Processing Software?

Crystal Beach Twilight
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Recently, I have been trying to branch out and explore some new, or at least rarely visited, territory.  For me, this usually involves reading:  both on the internet and books on particular topics.  In the past months, I have read about B&W, painting images and converting photographic images, flash photography, and more recently, night photography.

Almost everything I read has at least a short section on post-processing.  Because our world has become digital, it is, at the very least a “necessary evil.”  But some of us find it to be a huge positive to our photography, and even enjoy playing around with it.

I would appreciate if readers would respond here and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

What I see in virtually every text and article though, is the inevitable reference to either Adobe Light Room, Photoshop (which has become a generic reference in many cases to all things digitally manipulated), or both.  It is understandable that Photoshop was the original image editing program, but over the many years since it was first introduced, there have certainly been a number of other programs designed with photographic image-editing in mind.  I have recently experimented with some of these offerings, including, most notably, On1‘s all-in-one, stand-alone, photo-editing software competitor to Photoshop (though I have not used any of them enough to have any judgment about them, there is an impressive lineup, including Capture One, Corel, DxO, ACDsee, and numerous others (interestingly, they all compare themselves against the Adobe “benchmarks” – Photoshop and Light Room – and often mention that you can work in and out of the Adobe programs, “seemlessly.” I gave On1 a pretty thorough test drive over a couple weeks.  Ultimately, I could not get the software to play well with my HP Desktop or my Microsoft Surface 3 and they graciously refunded my purchase.  It was an impressive program at what appears to be a lower price point than Photoshop.  I am currently subscribed to the Adobe Cloud solution; Photoshop CC and Lightroom Classic CC and whether the price point is actually significantly lower may well depend on how often these stand-alone programs need to be updated and at what cost.

In a recent post, I spoke about keeping up with the newest iteration of Photoshop, and concluded that it would remain my “go-to” software for all phases of image editing, for the time being.  The books all seem to suggest that most photographers are either using Light Room, Photoshop, or both.  The then go on and say that the image-editing process is pretty much the same.

Having come from earlier versions of Photoshop that predate Light Room, I never embraced its image-editing capabilities.  Early on, I felt that it still had too much missing from my workflow, and the Photoshop Adobe Raw Converter (ACR), now essentially the same conversion “engine” in both Light Room and ACR, seemed more capable in its early days.  By the time Light Room “caught up” to Photoshop, I was thoroughly entrenched.  I appreciate that Light Room was really developed specifically for photographers, and many who came to digital image-editing later than I did, probably started with Light Room.  There is little doubt in my mind that it is an easier learning curve, and its design is perhaps more logical to photographers.  But that is a little like saying that the metric system is a little more logical than the “English” system to a 62-year-old who has used the latter system all his life.  🙂  I am sure it is more logical.  But that doesn’t make changing my thinking to it a breeze.  So I pretty much stay with Photoshop (and use Light Room as an expensive cataloging tool).  That may change.  But for now, it still does a few things that Light Room doesn’t.  And Lightroom integrates well with it.

The point of this rambling blog is really to try to satisfy my own curiosity.  I would appreciate if readers would respond and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

Oh, and by the way, I haven’t lost all interest in the “doing” phase of photography.  Not much shooting lately, but a little:  mostly experimentation.  The image here was taken a couple nights ago near my Florida home.  We often have spectacular sunsets here on the gulf.  But this night it was more subdued.  I made this image after sunset during twilight, and used my newest toy, a remote flash trigger, to walk over near the vegetation in the foreground and light it up with the flash.  I am a long way down on the learning curve for using lighting with my Sony system.  Nikon made it so easy.

Now, Fall rapidly approaches, and I suspect the excitement to get out will build.

Are Photographers Losing a Battle of Attrition?

This is an image made on my Smartphone in 2016, and then re-worked in Painter Essentials
Copyright 2018 Andy Richards

There is a war out there. It is being fought in the trenches by professional photographers.  Most people are probably not even aware of it, but I think most pros are.

“Short messages,” emoticons, and on-line abbreviations, have “dumbed down” our world

Perhaps more than anything, it is a war about technology. They are not fighting technology itself.  Indeed, technology has by and large, been a great friend to photographers. The war exists in a new world order, in which photographic imagery is judged not so much by its technical and aesthetic merit, but things like “likes,” “reblogs,” and “tweets.”

Having been a lifelong early-adopter of all things digital, I spend a fair amount of time online, and on social media. So I see a lot of photographs out there on a daily basis. Over time, this has become more and more, an image-centric phenomena. Instagram, for example was created specifically as an image-sharing media. Twitter, a service designed pretty much specifically for “short-messages,” also has image-posting capability.  Perhaps the most well-known is Facebook, which not only allows posting in messages, but archives and makes available thousands of user-posted images.

Original Image made with Blackberry Priv Smartphone
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

In the past, I have lamented the negative effect of this “digital” phenomena. “Short messages,” emoticons, and on-line abbreviations (and I am as guilty as the next person of over using them), have “dumbed down” our world. I daily observe online presences that demonstrate a basic ignorance of grammar, spelling, and history. The assault on our language, history and culture stormed the beachhead a long time ago and has made major inroads, “inland,” so to speak.

But there is a photographic component now, to this, and that is what I am referring to when I suggest that there is a war out there.

That is not to say that it has made us better photographers. Indeed, it just may be that it has made it easier for the vast majority of us to just get lucky, with our images

At the same time, technologically, the equipment available to make photographs has moved light-years in the past 50 years. It used to be the case that in order to make a nice image (usually a large(r) print), the photographer would have to have a reasonably high quality camera, and use and understand film, exposure and focus (as well as have an understanding of some of the more refined technical and aesthetic qualities of a good photograph). Digital technology, with auto-focus, face-recognition, sophisiticated “automatic” metering capability, and higher and higher quality image-sensors and lenses, has simply made it easier to make a technically sound image.  That is not to say that it has made us better photographers. Indeed, it just may be that it has made it easier for the vast majority of us to just get lucky, with our images. Today’s leading “smart-phone” cell phones have some pretty impressive digital camera capability, both in terms of hardware, and of software (and since the vast majority of photographs today are presented as internet-based digital images, they can look pretty good.

This image was made with a Nikon SLR camera and color transparency film, and later scanned.
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

I have the privilege and pleasure of knowing some shooters who make their living as professional photographers. I don’t envy them.  Most of the ones I know have established their careers, and while they have had to adapt to these technological changes, continue to make a good living at their craft. But there are many who do not fare so well.  Particularly those who are what I might call generalists. When I moved into my small community, there were probably a dozen small, professional photography studios. They shot Seniors in the spring, weddings, family photos, and contract jobs. That number has dwindled. A day or so ago, I happened to notice a (digital) sign in front of a studio that I had never paid much attention to, but pass by nearly daily.  In large, bright letters, it advertised “50% off Senior Photos,” “no sitting charge,” etc. This was a studio that has been in business for over 50 years and was notably successful. 20 years back 50% off would not have been common and most certainly would not have been advertised.

Unfortunately, I do not see this as a war that will be won by “the good guys”

Personally, I don’t think this is because of competition from other professional photographers. Instead, I think it is based on partly perception, partly reality, that we no longer need professional photographers to shoot our portraits. I don’t have any empirical information, but I suspect that business for studio photographers is way below what it was a few years back.

This image was made with the “professional” Nikon D800 and a “pro” Nikkor Zoom lens. I was experimenting with depth of field.
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

This is rather short-sighted, and demonstrates a continuing erosion of our standards as a society. There are things a trained, professional photographer knows how to do that make photographic images. It is not about fancy equipment or secret formulas.  It is about study, hard work, and experience. Unfortunately, I do not see this as a war that will be won by “the good guys.”

Life and the Learning Curve

Beginning with the Ephesian Philosopher, Heraclitus, it has often been famously said that “change is the only constant.”  I recently purchased yet another version of my preferred textbook on Photoshop by Martin Evening: “Adobe Photoshop CC for photographers” (formerly “Adobe Photoshop for Photographers”); now “version 2018”.  My last version was purchased only 4 years ago, and yes, there has been that much change in this program!  I had been refreshing my memory on a couple of the tool settings and realized that there are options on my screen that weren’t covered by my bookThat got me thinking about change and the learning curve.

it has been my thesis over the years that although we now have some pretty amazing digital cameras at reasonable prices, it was consumer “point & shoot” digital cameras that drove the revolution

Thomas and John Knoll first created their “Photoshop” software, to display grayscale images on computers, in 1987.  Not yet “ready for prime time” or for retail consumption, the early “Knoll Software” company’s program was first known simply as “Display.”  It was shortly changed to “Image-Pro.”  But when they finally found a buyer and it went to the commercial/retail market in 1988, having been licensed to the Adobe Software Company, it became “Photoshop,” and continues to this day, to be the benchmark everyone is trying to meet or beat.

Nikon DCS 100

While the very first useable digital camera was probably created by Kodak in 1975, the real “revolution” began in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  During that time period some DSLR cameras were produced but were too expensive for general consumption.  Smaller “digicams” began to appear, however, and it has been my thesis over the years that although we now have some pretty amazing digital cameras at reasonable prices, it was these consumer “point & shoot” digital cameras that drove the revolution.  The 1991 Nikon D1 was probably the first semi-affordable enthusiast/pro camera and still cost a healthy $5,000 (while weighing in at nearly 3 pounds and delivering a whopping 2.7 megapixels).  Canon and Fujifilm followed shortly.  Then the Canon 3 megapixel, D30 debuted in 2000 as the first real “prosumer” DLSR.  In 2002, they followed with a 6 megapixel D60 and Nikon matched with their own 6 megapixel D100, both coming in just under $2,000, and the “prosumer” DSLR revolution was in full swing.

Sony RX100

For the next nearly 20 years, we saw a continuous lineup of new digital cameras, beginning with “APS” sized sensors, to so-called “full-frame” 35mm-equivalent sensors, and from traditional SLR-styled bodies, to the newer mirrorless models.  Of course, there were also larger format digital bodies, but because of a mix of expense and size and limitations on ISO, they have never caught on with the masses.

Along with the evolution of digital cameras, there was a need/demand for pixel-editing software.  And while there have certainly been numerous participants in the mix, Photoshop has been the benchmark to meet or beat.  From 1990 on, there were new editions released approximately every two years.  When first released, Photoshop was written for MAC computers and only available on Apple’s platform until version 2.5, released in 1992.  Clearly this was in response to demand.  Since version 2.5, new releases have essentially been parallel for Window and Mac.  And over time, some pretty impressive new features were added every few years.  Originally having notable features like levels, curves, the clone tool, color balance, hue and saturation adjustments, in 1994, layers were added to version 3.0.

with the evolution of digital cameras, there was a need/demand for pixel-editing software

In 2003, for reasons really known only to Adobe, Photoshop dropped the version numbers in the title (with version 7.0 being the last) and became “Photoshop CS” (versions are still retained, however).  CS introduced ACR (Adobe Camera Raw decoding engine) 2x.  CS2, in 2007, added a new user interface and some additional bells and whistles.  CS3 continued the “new and improved” feature set.  In 2008, CS4 was released with lots of “refinements,” but nothing new and exciting. Though we are up to, I believe, “version 7 or 8 of ACR, there is little or no change from version number to version number.  The real changes occurred in what Adobe refers to as their “process version.”  In 2003, we were working with process version 1.  Process version 2 was rolled out in 2010.  It may have been the most dramatic change.  Process version 3 came in 2012, and we are now working with process version 4, since 2017.

My LightCentric Logo Image in the current Photoshop CC version of Camera Raw

At the same time, Adobe released Lightroom 1.0 in 2007, following with version 2.0 in 2008.  This program was aimed squarely at photographers. Photoshop is a very robust graphics editing and creating program, which was Adobe’s only in depth pixel editing offering for serious photographers (Elements and other versions of “Photoshop – Lite” type software were available, but were in my experience, woefully inadequate to the task).  In the meantime, many of us photographers found that the continuing stream of new versions often did not justify the cost of the upgrade.  We often skipped a version (or two or three).  Then, when the CS series came along, Adobe began to essentially require sequential upgrading.  Shortly after that, Adobe announced the discontinuation of the stand-alone version of Photoshop,with the roll-out of cloud-based Photoshop CC (in lieu of CS7).  Unlike the former Photoshop model, “owners” of the full program installed on their computer (well, at least owners of the right to use it 🙂 ) have now become “subscribers,” paying a monthly fee and working in “the cloud” (on the internet).  This, in all probability, has motivated some new, competing “complete photo-editing” programs, which tout the fact that they are still stand-alone.  And some of them are pretty darn good.

Screenshot from my Lightroom catalog

Lightroom has continued to develop (pun intended) as a stand-alone photographers’ alternative to Photoshop.  Apple’s now-discontinued Aperture was also a parallel Lightroom alternative for Apple owners (I am not an Apple user, but I understand that part of the decision involved Apple’s roll-out of a new program called “Photos” which will integrate with its iCloud – it appears that iPhotos and Aperture will not, including the legacy software, which should still work stand-alone).  Meanwhile, it seems that everyone is jumping on the raw editor “bandwagon.”  A quick online search reveals at least 10 (and I am sure there are more) names that have some familiarity out there.  Some of them started out as Photoshop “plugins.”  I have played around with a couple of them, including ON1, Capture 1, and Topaz Labs.  They are all up-and-coming Photoshop competitors.  There are those who say one or the other of them does some things better than Photoshop.  Sounds a bit like the “camera wars” we have all come to know.  Every “flavor” is going to have do some things better than the others, and some things not so well.  I will continue to look at these alternative (or in some cases supplemental) programs.  But for now, Photoshop still does the overall combination of things that works best for me (and at this time, I believe, the majority of others doing digital post-processing).

owners of Photoshop have now become subscribers

All of these software programs (though they have many similarities) have a new and different “learning curve.”  Photoshop is — perhaps — the most daunting of all of them, and once a person has put as much time as many of us have into learning its “ins and outs,” it is hard to shift to a different program.  As for Photoshop, I have owned many “how too” texts for Photoshop (as well as Lightroom and some of the plug-ins for Photoshop and Lightroom).  I feel like I have contributed my part to the publishing industry’s well-being 🙂 (though it looks more and more like they are going to be eclipsed by digital media).  The Martin Evening Book is over 700 pages and only attempts to cover the photographer-aspect of this very complex and very robust program.  It is a $50.00 book and that is an expensive addition to the already healthy cost of acquiring and maintaining Photoshop.  But is the only comprehensive “textbook” guide available of its kind (that is not intended to be a lukewarm endorsement – it really is a very good book).  There is a lot of material available free on the internet.  But there is no real organized source to have as a desktop companion when working with the program.  The Adobe site’s so-called “help” program is not really very good, in my opinion.  It is too general, and there is as much of a chance of not finding the item you need explained or expounded as not.  Unfortunately, most of this text are 80% repetition from past versions.  It would really be nice if the writers and publishers would offer a smaller (and cheaper) version that is kind of a “What’s New In Version x.0” (which is done now, only on a website).  But here it is.  And again, change is going to continue, and therefore apparently so is cost – if you want to move with the change. 🙂

for now, Photoshop still does the overall combination of things that works best for me

“Going Straight”

Tilted Horizon

In my early days of blogging, I posted a series on “fundamentals” for photographers.  I don’t fancy myself a pro, or necessarily a qualified teacher.  I don’t have “credentials.”  I am self-taught, with a small amount of formal training, and many generous and talented friends.  However, I have helped some friends and family get their arms around the basics of photography, to advance beyond so-called “point and shoot.”  In fact, the genesis of my blogging here was reducing a few long-winded e-mail messages to writings that I thought could help others who have struggled as I did.

The internet and high quality smart phones have made everyone a “photographer” these days

That was a long time ago.  I have moved away from the “tips and tutorials” thing and leave that to other writers and bloggers out there, many of whom are much better qualified than I.  If you want to see my simple-minded approach to teaching, you can see my series here.  But every once in a while, my observations on-line give the urge to pontificate.  The internet and high quality smart phones have made everyone a “photographer” these days.  The technology in both IOS and Android (and others) phones today is impressive, with good lenses, good resolution, and many apps designed to assist that process.

But technical quality doesn’t guarantee a good photograph.  There is still a basic skill set required.  While technology has made good exposure (with sophisticated metering capability), and sharper images (with image-stabilization technology and ever sharper lenses) possible, there are a couple things that still require a different “built-in” but sometimes not effectively mobilized technology – the brain.  Being as guilty as the next guy, I find that in my own case, failure to take advantage of this marvelous technology (the brain) is often borne of laziness, or lack of observation of my surroundings (both during and after the image has been made, during post-processing).  While I have tried to avoid this problem, I am sure you can find an example or two of what I am going to criticize, in my “online” presence. 😦

Technical quality doesn’t guarantee a good photograph

I thought about doing a “Top 10″ things we fail to do.”  But wouldn’t be what I honestly think.  I pointedly avoid the left and right leaning political points of view here.  But there is one case in which I have to admit that I abhor leanings in both directions.  There is really one primary one that I see time and again (and when I – or someone else – catch it in my own work, I am always disconcerted).  That one thing is the left-leaning or right-leaning horizon.  I see it so often on Facebook that it has become “fingernails on a blackboard” for me.  It is the single most prominent fault (at least in my observation) of the 1000’s of posted images on the internet.  And here’s the thing:  It is fixable!  It is fixable before and after the shot (though it is always better in my mind to try to “fix” it during the shooting process).

And here’s the thing; It is fixable!

Starting Out “Straight”

One type of Hotshoe Bubble Level

Before we make the image, we have several aids available to us.  Perhaps the best (but not always feasible) one is to use a fixed camera stand (tripod) and install a bubble level on the camera hotshoe (of course, your smartphone doesn’t have a hotshoe 🙂  – more on that one later).  Before a couple of my colleagues persuaded me to use a level, I thought my own eye was pretty good at judging that.  The level proved otherwise (note, however, that not all levels are created equal.  It is worth buying one from a good source and then testing it to be sure it is accurate – I used a carpenter’s level to test mine).

Where is that thing on my smartphone?

Of course, it is not always feasible (or convenient) to shoot from a tripod.  And some of those to whom I am preaching here, don’t shoot with a dedicated camera, but use their smartphone.  In most modern cameras, the software options include an on-screen (or in-viewfinder) graphic level.  These are great tools (of course, they need to be checked and calibrated for accuracy, and there is some anecdotal commentary online that they are not always completely accurate – and there is an answer to that below).  Where is that thing on my smartphone?  To the best of my knowledge, neither the top Android (I use Samsung) and IOS phones do not have that as a built-in option.  But there are several free apps that will add that feature.  I am test-driving one called “Camera Level” that seems very much like the in-camera built-in level in my Sony cameras.  It automatically loads into your smartphone’s camera (after appropriate “registration/permission”).

One of many different variations of a built-in “electronic” level

Most software now also offers a “grid” pattern on the screen or in the viewfinder.  While I find this can be a help, your eye will still fool you.  The level won’t.  I do not think there is any good reason not to use this technology regularly.

Rehabilitation is Available

When “curating” my images after a shoot, there is little doubt that even when using these tools, I still have occasions where the image is tilting.  Fortunately, there is help for this in post-processing.  Today, virtually every post-processing software application has an automated “straighten” feature.  But even in the day when that wasn’t part of the software features, there was always a way to accomplish this.  I primarily use Photoshop and it was easy to create a straight line (using an available “grid” overlay, or a “guide”) and then rotate the image so that the horizon was straight.  And because it is possible that the level methods described above are not always accurate, it ought to always be part of your process to make sure that things are level that should be level.  Our eye will fool us from behind the lens.  But the image won’t and it will be one of the first things the astute viewer will notice.  I often quip, when seeing that ubiquitous sunset over water, “I wonder why the water doesn’t just drain out of that picture?” 🙂

There are some drawbacks to the post-processing “fix.”  It very often may require you to crop out important parts of an image, in order to straighten it (Photoshop’s impressive “content-aware” cropping can in many cases repair that problem).  It is also true that there is not always a “horizon” to reference from.  It can then become more challenging.  Straight lines that “should” be horizontal or vertical can be used, but you have to take into consideration perspective distortion created by lenses now.  But careful analysis of the photo should tell you which lines “should” be horizontal or vertical – or at least if you have to make a choice, which are aesthetically preferable.

Have a great day, be careful out there, and watch those horizons.

“I wonder why the water doesn’t just drain out of that picture?” 🙂