Category Archives: still photos

Shooting in a rain forest is a bit like shooting under water

I just returned from spending the longest night of the year in one of the darkest, dampest places in Washington: the Quinault Rain Forest. Lisa and I spent a couple of days there last year, and discovered it to be a magical wonderland for photography.

When we returned this time, we brought a Speedlight and a 20″ Glow Hexapop, made by Adorama. This is a small and very portable soft box, so it was a small thing to pack it along. But we were really impressed with the results when we used it to backlight our subjects. Just as with underwater photography, subjects that otherwise look monochromatic in the eerie half light come to life with a little pop of strobe. Happy Solstice!

Quinault Rainforest

Lisa and I spent a couple days hiking in the rainforest around Lake Quinault this week with our cameras and a set of old Nikon prime lenses (Lens used were Nikon 85mm f/1.8, Nikon 20mm f/4, and Nikon 35mm f/1.4).

It’s a magical place full of visual intrigue. Home to six of the largest trees in the world, it was a perfect place to put my new 5D MKIII to work. I’ll be posting more about the camera, particularly from a video perspective, after I’ve spent more time with it. For now, some stills.

Shooting the Moon: combine two shots for one dramatic photo

Last night’s Super Moon brought the moon close enough to Earth for NASA to call it 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter. That was enough to send dozens of people, including me, scrambling for a place to stand to observe the rare spectacle. I headed to Seattle’s Gas Works Park, thinking I’d shoot a timelapse of the action from atop Kite Hill.

But when I arrived, I discovered the hill was already packed with moon seekers. So I set up my tripod from a more humble vantage, halfway down the hill, next to a couple of other late arrivals. Sometimes it pays to be late! Just before the moon appeared, the guy next to me said “I’m sure the moon’s going to be great and all, but I think the better photograph is that way,” pointing behind us. I turned around and saw this:

A nice shot, for sure. But with a little room for improvement.

After the moon came up a few minutes later, I shot this frame with a 300mm Nikkor f/4. This is the uncropped version, just as it appeared through my camera’s viewfinder.

After the excitement of watching the moonrise was over, I went home, and imported my two shots into the Beta version of Photoshop CS6 that I recently downloaded from Adobe. My timelapse, incidentally, didn’t turn out at all. But I saw a lot of potential in these two frames. Here’s what I did to bring the magic together:

1. Rather than blow up the moon to appear larger in the frame, I started by down-sampling the people shot. It was destined for the web, so it didn’t need to be high resolution. I chose 1400 pixels wide. Using selective color, I made a selection of all the blue sky. The I pressed command-shift-i to select the inverse (the people), and commend-j to create a new layer with the selection. Here’s what it looked like:

2. Next I opened the moon, which was easy to get on it’s own layer similarly, by using selective color to drop out the dark sky, and after a little refine edge work, it looked like this:

3. I placed them together, on separate layers, with the moon behind, to get this:

4. I had saved a copy of the original shot of the hill on it’s own layer, all the way in the background. Turning it on makes things looks like this:

5. Something didn’t look quite real about this. With normal lenses, the evening sky typically appears darker toward the edges of the frame, and that was missing from my original shot of the skyline, because it was shot with a longish 105mm lens. To get that feeling back, I needed to add a gradient. This took a little playing around – I tried several kinds of gradients, and ultimately settled for a standard black, white gradient, at 58 percent opacity, using “multiply” as the layer blending mode (which darkens only). Here’s how it looked, along with the settings I used in the layer:

6. Turning all the layers on reveals the finished shot: a whole bunch of photographers gathered to shoot one super big moon. Enjoy!

Fast glass: Why they call it a nifty fifty

Holiday lights take an otherwise ordinary shot into another dimension when shot with my old Nikon 50mm f1.4 lens, shot wide open. I captured this slice of holiday happy just before the family sat down to dinner yesterday at our family gathering in Bellevue. I like it so much that I’m heading to the Bellevue Botanical Garden tonight with my Glidetrack to have a go at shooting some of the over-the-top lights there, to use for who-knows what: backgrounds, abstract video compositing, whatever. Or maybe just because it’s pretty.

Shallow thinking has it's limits

I was in Portland this weekend, celebrating my birthday with my wife Lara. We spent some time discovering great little places like M Bar. I was carrying my iPhone 4 and my Canon 60D. When I had my “serious photographer” hat on, I shot with the 60D. When I was just fooling around, I shot with the iPhone. And guess what? I like a lot of the iPhone snaps better.

Here’s a couple of photos that illustrate the point. Exhibit A is a photo I took with my 60D through the window of a bar (consciously trying to make a good picture). Exhibit B is shot with iPhone, and I was just messing around (subconsciously trying to make a good picture). Which do you like better?

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

I like ’em both for different reasons, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d pick B any day. There’s just a lot more going on that’s interesting to look at. A is a quick-read; B is a deep read. It’s the thinker’s pick. And when it comes to photography, I like thinking deep.

Problem is, for some reason, whenever I have a 2.8 lens on my DSLR, I think shallow. Both pictures present different challenges: A is easy to compose, but harder to get critical focus. B is a piece of cake to focus, but much harder to compose and pick just the right moment to snap the picture.

This is a reminder to me that all that camera gear is supposed to work for you, not think for you. What I hope to take away from this is a reminder that there’s a big aperture dial on all DSLRs. And it’s important to use the big numbers as often as the little ones.

Darwin's Return: Flour Beach, Floreana

Green turtles must find deserted sandy beaches to lay their eggs. Trouble is, virtually all the open sandy beaches are colonized by sea lions. But not this one. Why? Because sharks have long used this bay for sleeping – marking it permanently off limits to sea lions. But not to turtles, who have migrated here for generations, mating in the shallow water and crawling ashore to lay their eggs at night.

The beach gets its name from the flour-like consistency of the sand. In addition to the turtle hatchlings, large numbers of young sting rays spend their childhood in the surf along this beach, before heading out to sea.