Oct 27, 2009

Techno Weenies Trifecta

White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona

A collection of White Pocket image thumbnails courtesy Synnatschke, Parker, Ceccaldi, Liverman, and Schmickle…

Why Talk Trifecta?
Let's face it - if you've got a terabyte of hard drive space, finding an image or folder can be enough to break your heart.  Say you want to write an article.  Might take you a week; might take you two.  After a while, things seem to get lost in all those hard drive folders.
Enter Lightroom 3.  Yep, it's a beta.  But, beta aside, Hurrah to skilled Adobe engineers!  You literally see, in the newly revamped Folders Panel, I can do 2 very important functions
1.    See all images relevant to the article, and,
2.    See and work on other non image items in the folder to smoothly continue writing!
Thought of old graduate school days of library research, Xerox’s, or even handwritten notes …Arrggghhhh.  With Lightroom 3 - you can see what you're doing, you can write your article faster, etc..  I estimate a 20 to 30% increase in efficiency just using LR3 this exciting new way.  Unfortunately, it's still up to you to have that creative Muse grace your writing shoulder much less your viewfinder.

Cheers Aside - Let's Share a Rather Long Trifecta...
They always say, "Life's fine events come in 3’s..."!
This last few days seems like a fog; just about when free Lightroom 3 beta was announced, Frank Sirona, a German landscape photographer and good friend, wrote me a very intriguing letter.
Frank asked, "What would you think about putting together an article for... What I´m thinking of is an article describing geology and beauty of Coyote Buttes area in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument."

You guessed it; I fired up LR3b, looked at some of Frank’s images, then tried to segregate other Web images into three geologically distinct categories (Coyote Buttes North CBN, Coyote Buttes South CBS, and White Pocket WP).
So, why the fog?
Several reasons: flattered by Frank's suggestion, I went off on a geology/writing/photography bender.  After reading several technical papers, I had a sense of not only some of the incredible beauty at Vermilion Cliffs, but of the truly remarkable origin and affects of ancient rocks that make up this wilderness.  Almost immediately, I knew I was going to positively respond to Frank.
What I hadn't counted on was one of the facile new conveniences LR3b would provide.  Without any manuals, but with instincts honed from Lightroom 2, I began the rather intricate process of writing the dual article - geology and beauty – with LR3b’s now considerable help.
What's an intricate response?
I like to collect images, put them in Microsoft Word, pick up a microphone headset, and talk to the images.  You say; 'talk to the images'?  By that metaphor, I mean dictate words for the article and watch them 'magically' appear around each image.  What a marvelous way to simply let your memories, internal and external visual images, and spoken thoughts flow... it’s an amazing form of story tellin’!

Lightroom 3 beta, Folders Panel

With Lightroom 2, image segregation was facilitated in Collections.  In Lightroom 3, it's both in Folders and Collections.  At least in Windows, my writing process can spawn many folders following different ideas to completion of an article.
Welcome, LR3b - Adobe designer's now let me look through the Folders Panel not only at individual images, so I can organize them and my thoughts about the article – but - actually lets me go directly down to HD folder level where I can see relevant technical articles in Adobe's Free Reader PDF format.  Talk about Nervana! 
Now, I can both see and read as I compose.  Frankly, I wish I'd had this facility years ago when I stepped out of the bachelors and began graduate work.  It would've saved so much time...
Here's my current Folders evolution from LR3b.  Mind you, these folders evolved as I created the article. 

But what about dark chocolate atop the sweetest ice cream cone?
If I put a new image in an already used folder as the article grows, LR3b will quickly let me import just that image back into my proper folder.  On screen, prior images are dark whereas new images are light and checked.  You simply click Import...
what an incredibly subtle enhancement to reflective creativity!
Way_to_Go, Adobe engineers!!!

Ancient Culture
With years of writing about geology, I'm trained to look at rocks, confine them to a photograph, think about their origin, then try to explain all this in simple English.  If you check Frank's request, that's just what he wants.
Of course, you always need to be prepared for the unexpected...
Geologic articles need to talk about similarities and differences of a region like Vermilion.  That part was easy.  The hard part was trying to recognize two different cultures were very present at two vastly different times and places. 
All right, Joe, "What the hell do you mean - Two Cultures?"
Well, Frank, the first time I went to The Wave (CBN) 4 years ago, David Loope was kind enough to provide a GPS coordinate for Grallator tracks right across the valley.  Oops - sorry folks, a Grallator was a small Jurassic dinosaur who lived 190 million years ago.
As geologic research for this article has progressed, Grallator's ain't the only dinosaurs on that part of ancient supercontinent Pangaea.  Suddenly, I'm going from trekking an area and taking pictures to trying to learn where the area was when this huge Jurassic Navajo sandstone was laid down.  Geologic words like equator, tropical westerlies, supercontinent, plate tectonics, breakup, continental drift, dinosaurs, dinosaur tracks, sand dunes, alluvial episodes, slumps... the list is quite long, but it's not my intention to bore you silly.
To make a long story short, I'm now sitting on a long manuscript which Frank has yet to see, trying to complete the seemingly tenuous link between two cultures.  Yes, I've briefly described the geologic setting and its effect on millions of years of dinosaur life; Culture 1.

Recent Culture
But there's more...
as you can see from some images in our tentative summary above, White Pocket contains some of the most incredibly luscious photography nature photographers will ever capture. 
I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Steffen Synnatschke, whom I've never met.  It's Steffen's work, along with others listed above, which sets the digital bar and graces my visual steps back onto Pangaea.  They let me see what it was like in those oases where dinosaurs cavorted at the equator, left tracks, but no bones, and gorgeous, candy colored rocks slumped from too much water recharge and overburden pressure.  In these images (or tracks) would become what's now an seemingly ephemeral culture, preceding avid digital photographers. Ephemeral because our images will scarcely outlast dinosaur tracks.
It's also digital photography of people like Steffen which heralds the exciting Culture 2.  Mind you, dinosaurs were only seeking water and food; they left no record of the awesome beauty they saw.  But the avid digital photographer - willing to repeatedly travel across continents and use four wheel drives to brave deep sand can capture incredible beauty - he or she has left an incredibly awesome visual track a.k.a. a series of provocative fine art images.

So, in today's high-tech world, when we think of places to go and things to shoot (figuratively of course; perhaps capture our digital image would be more proper), we may not realize ~ we are the 'second' culture to leave tracks (oops - photos)! 
Yep, you got it; Culture 2and now, I've a trifecta!

Oct 24, 2009

Dragon's Breath...

Dragon's Breath, NM, sunset, full range HDR

©Joe Bridwell

Children love this visual game…
“Tell me what you see in this gorgeous cloud picture?”

“I see lots of ruby gold colors.” A pensive, quizzical look appeared in her blue eyes.  “But also that dark blob of clouds on the left.”
A moment of silence, then more slowly, “I think… I see a dragon, mouth still open, who just belched fire…”
“Maddy, that’s truly amazing.  Can you tell me more about your dragon and its fiery breath?”
“Well, I can see its open throat, its still hot nostrils, even a place way back in its throat where fire starts...”  Maddy, who was beginning to really enjoy this game,  pointed to the burnished gold area amidst the black cloud behind the mouth.
“Maddy, you are really creative.  But, I am puzzled – where is this ‘belched’ fire?”
“Grandpa, you’re funny…” A smile appeared on her face.  “The fire is above the bright sunset…”
Stubbornly, I clung to this rather important question; “Maddy, I don’t still see fire.”
“Grandpa, bits of the fire are still there.  See the darkish cloud above the golden sunset?”  She giggled…
“If you look real close, some of the cloud underbelly’s still glows golden.”
“What is that supposed to tell me?”
“Silly, it’s the big key.  My dragon breathed fire.  But, the sky was cold.  So, the fire turned to smoke…”  Looking at my solemn, disbelieving face, Maddy laughed with great glee!

I sat there, deeply amazed.  Maddy, who loved art, looked at this image, let her remarkably artistic imagination run, and found many exciting ways to let the image tell its creative story.
“Grandpa, you did not say anything about another important dragon feature…”
“What’s that?”
“Did you miss his eye?”
I looked again, more carefully this time – sure enough, Maddy did see the eye, which dimmed slightly after breathing the enormous gasp of fire…

Dragon’s Breath seems almost a fairy tale – the exciting exploration between imagination, photography, fine art, and emotional awareness.

The image is a final response to Full Range HDR.  Nikon D300, 14bits, f/13, ISO 200, shutter speed range: 2 – 1/8000 sec (a range of 15 EV).
Photomatic combination tone compressed at default settings.
Lightroom - global color balance – medium contrast, enhance lights, black clipping, exposure, fill light, clarity, vibrance, edge masking, luminance smoothing, crop.
Photoshop – local enhancement – Smart Object, Color Burn @ 20%, adjustment layer – Lighter Color @ 10% brush opacity – Final Dodge and Burn of throat, eye, and smoky breath…
For a thoughtful description of Full Range HDR, click here.

OOPs 11/24/2009
My thanks to Rhonda Fleming, ELCC - Rhonda pointed out that I screwed up the URL to download the Full Range PDF...  does old age get ANY better?
It's workin' now...


Oct 18, 2009

Still Waters, Rattling Leaves… II

Still Water-RattlingLeaves-II, Shady Lake, NM, full range HDR

Paradigm Shift
Many of my images drift toward the surreal, but not so far as to render them completely Daliesque... I think it’s important to keep an element of reality, but a purely documentary approach lacks creative impact.  It has become increasingly difficult to find ways to be original.
I’m moving away from ‘literal’ interpretations of straight nature scenes.  More abstract photography reacts to this fact - too often, nature photographers rely on scenic drama to make powerful images.  A beautiful landscape combined with an amazing sunset can make for a stunning photograph.  But Mother Nature is doing all the work – doesn’t the photographer merely record an event?
Nature photography, as an art form, has to reach out into new directions or it risks becoming stagnant.  We have seen too many pictures of stunning landscapes or sunset skies.  Too often nature photographers merely ‘chase the light,’ waiting for that perfect sunset over a dramatic high mountain lake.
I think we must take a more active role in artistic creation - not just leave it all to Mother Nature.  It is just such artistry which makes full range HDR so appealing to me; when all light and its objects are captured, combined, then softly tone mapped, it’s the closest I may get to working magic from a ‘blank’ canvas. 
Instead of just chasing Nature’s stunning image, I capture all light ~ then get a chance - to ‘paint’ an evocative creation...

Still, But Windy…
Our duality image (above) is the difference between a raw image and a final, full-capture tone mapped HDR image. 
By full capture, I mean manually getting light’s full range using LCD histogram limits with as many shots as it takes.
The pale raw file lacks passion of adjacent, full color still water comingled with vibrant reflections of wind rattled leaves. 

And, yes, between Lightroom and Photoshop, I used a brush, painted, masked, and, like Dali, at times sweated the small stuff. 
“Is the real stump too light?”
“Should the tree be sharper?”
“Is the water like my daughter’s blue eyes now?”
“Can these reeds attain more lustrous depth; they make such a natural signature against our real stump!”

What are your artistic ‘reflections’ about Still Waters, Rattling Leaves

And, how are you sloughing off stagnation?

Oct 5, 2009

Still Waters : Rattling Leaves

Still Water-RattlingLeaves, Shady Lake, NM, full range HDR

Intimate Waterscape
©Joe Bridwell
It’s a topsy turvy world
You see; yet you don’t
What’s real; what’s reflected?
Finally, a tree stump and lillys sort out…
Then, windblown tree reflections on a still pond.
Another HDR tone poem…

Intimate Lighting
Walking along the pond’s bank, several HDR shot sets were taken before this vista became best of catch…
The sun’s brassy October glare was before sunset, but they closed at six sharp. A wind was blowing – Kodak’s Balloon Fiesta would see no balloons go up.
While tree leaves rattled overhead, our pond was relatively quiet.
But, it’s the inverted tree reflection which shows this intimacy; the reflected tree trunk is sharp and clear whereas the rattling tree top leaves disappear behind and among the real small trunk's protrusion.

Only after seeing this final image, did I realize just how powerful still water could enhance a rattling leaves effect (vocal) with a seemingly indistinct reflected shimmer (visual). Amidst viewfinder and LCD, images undergo serious visual compression; smooth vs indistinct variation can't be seen... But, in the final image ~ a rather unexpected visual reward.

Full Range HDR
With eight HDR shot sets captured, I developed all.
What’s a shot set?
It’s a range of HDR images captured such that you start with highlights albut 10% blown, then cycle 1EV (2 0.5 EV clicks each time) until the shadows are albut 10% blown. Each raw image is 14 bits, at ISO 200, f/13 (about the upper sweet spot range on a Nikkor 24-120 4.5 lens), and shot about 5 PM.
In this lighting, 12 images spanned our 10-10% blowout shot set range.

Using Lightroom 2.5, Photomatix Pro 3.2.3, and Photoshop CS4, I performed all functions from Full Manual HDR Capture. Shot sets were processed by PP, then returned to Lightroom as Tone Compressed (Default Setting) 16 bit tif images.
Using Lightroom’s Basic, Curves, and Detail Panels in Develop mode, I Tone Mapped images before carefully choosing the Masking portion of Sharpening function to see if, as usual, PP left a noisy sky. After performing Luminance noise reduction of about 50%, I might crop the image in Photoshop to strengthen impact.

Isn’t it always about the best?
When each shot set had its preferred image completely worked up, I gathered the last efforts in Lightroom as a Smart Collection. Using Full Screen Loupe View, it was then quite easy to decide which keeper (four of nine) met the winning criteria
“Which image contains a story within an already delicate story; does that image create a pleasing emotional and visual impact?”

Oct 4, 2009

Full Manual HDR Capture

Full Manual HDR Capture

Recent talks with Sandy Corless have reconstituted how I capture HDR images. Sandy has taken Dan Burkholder’s HDR workshop, then developed her own HDR style, as usual!

What Cha’ Lookin’ At..? Two images – the 0EV manual capture at f/11, ISO 200, shutter speed 1/180 sec.
The 2nd image is the resulting full range HDR where shutter speeds ranged from 1/6 to 1/6000 secs. The 11 raw files were captured at 11 AM. Our colorful result has gone thru Photomatic and Lightroom to become the ‘Best It Can Be…!’

In A Nutshell
I shoot with a Nikon D300 – it handles 14 bit raw images and allows me to manually change shutter speed at constant aperture and ISO. If I set my shutter speed to 0.5EV per click, two clicks, up or down, can change my EV by +/- one setting.
On manual setting, I choose depth of field (aperture), set ISO (200), and estimate the first capture. By moving my viewfinder dial to +5EV (10 clicks left), I estimate the initial HDR range. If the histogram shows only a small amount of signal, with most being blown out, e.g. the upper 10% of the histogram shows data, that’s my beginning HDR image. If Magic Hour tonal contrast is larger, I must continue searching until my initial HDR histogram only fills the upper 10%.
I then methodically begin decreasing my EV 2 clicks at a time moving right on the shutter speed dial until I show only 10% of the lower histogram remaining. Of course, you want to take a shot each 2 clicks, examine the histogram, then move onto the next capture!
For a near sunset or sunset Magic Hour capture sequence, this may take 15-20 images…

Photomatix Pro
Lightroom has a Photomatix Plugin which lets you select the range of images, then ask PP to assemble a 32 bit .hdr file. I always ask PP to perform all functions in assembly – Align, Reduce Chromatic Aberrations, Reduce Noise, and Reduce Ghosting Artifacts. PP plugin returns a 16 bit tif file.
Time has shown 2 issues; the resulting 16 bit tif file usually contains noise _and_ ONLY Tone Compressor at Default Settings allows me to retain the original bi-modal histogram in the 32 bit file.
An 11 shot HDR (RHS in final image above) took ~ 7 minutes on a dual CPU 32 bit 1.8 Ghz PC.

Lightroom’s Initial Tone Mapping
I apply Basic, Curves, and Detail panels to allow tone mapping to the final 16 bit tif, making copies for each separate Develop function in case of later modifications.
Detail panel actually allows me to perform 2 functions; noise reduction and sharpening.
Noise Reduction – PP usually leaves noise. By clicking on the Masking slider and moving to the right, I can see how much sky noise appears. I then move the Luminance slider until that noise is minimized.
Sharpening – I then apply an appropriate sharpening preset, modifying the Masking slider to produce the most pleasing HDR image.
If it’s a competition image, I might also choose to apply Pixel Genius’ Photokit Sharpener for its more complete sharpening tools…

If additional refinement is warranted, I open the Lightroom image in Photoshop to perform specialized tasks not presently available in Lightroom…

You can find a basic workflow either on Pathways of Light under Full Manual Range HDR capture or as a downloadable PDF here.

Oct 1, 2009

Shiprock a Finalist

Shiprock, Finalist, 9th Annual New Mexico Magazine Photo Contest,  Shiprock, NM

This morning, New Mexico Magazine’s Lisa Malaguti sent the following email:
Congratulations! Your photopgraph titled Shiprock has been selected as a finalist in the 9th Annual Photo Contest. Winners and Honorable Mentions will be announced in the January 2010 issue.

Thank You, Lisa, You’ve MADE My Day…