HDR – I Still Love It

HDR image of a gondola car taken near South Fork, Colorado with an Olympus E-510

I started shooting High Dynamic Range (commonly known as HDR) images roughly 2 years ago. I don’t shoot many (26 in my flickr gallery), but I enjoy shooting them. The gondola rail car in the photo above is the best one I have shot I think. Shooting HDR takes patience, at least with older dSLR’s like my Olympus E-510. Newer camera models, mainly ones that have arrived in the last 6-12 months, might have enough exposure bracketing built in to them to accomplish HDR captures with one click of the shutter release. Still others might have had a firmware update to accomplish this. It is my biggest hope that whatever Olympus brings out to replace the E-3 will have this feature.

I could write a tutorial on taking HDR images, but really, it would pale in comparison to the master, so I’ll let you have a look at Trey Ratcliff’s HDR Tutorial instead. I would also encourage you to check out his new book – “A World in HDR“.

After the captures, you need software. I have been using Photomatix HDR since I started doing HDR images, and highly recommend it. Trey does too, and he has even worked out a 15% discount with Photomatix (follow the link to see how to get it). Once again, Trey tells us the best way to use the software. For me personally, I usually play with a couple different settings in Photomatix to get the photo looking just the way I want to. For the gondola above, I think there were 4 versions, this one being the best (in my eyes). I would encourage you to experiment as well, and get the look that pleases you the most.

If you are looking for inspiration in other people’s HDR work, or if you have your own portfolio of images to show people, you need to take a look at hdrspotting.com. This collection of images is extraordinary, and I hope I produce something worthy of inclusion. To become a contributor, you need to obtain an invitation code. While it is not clear to me how people get codes to give away, if you watch #hdrspotting on Twitter or ask around in the HDR group on Facebook, you should see a code pop up. I will post them to my Twitter feed if they ever come my way.

If you are a flickr user, you should look into the HDR and Photomatix groups. Great pictures and discussions happen in both.

Get out and try your hand at HDR, and put links to your pictures in the comments below. I love seeing what other people do with this new type of imagery.

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Another picture of our lights

HDR Lights
After I took a picture of our holiday lights a couple of weeks ago, the snow melted, and we added a few more lights. Tuesday night it started to snow, so Wednesday morning I went out and took some pics, then combined them into an HDR. Didn’t come out to bad at all.

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Helicon Focus Flower Macro Composite
I have been using Helicon Focus off and on for a little over a year now. I love the program. I haven’t really tried depth of field stacking in Photoshop, mainly because the results of Helicon Focus are so good. If it is good enough for scientific work, it’s good enough for me. However, I recently became aware of a free tool similar to Helicon, called CombineZP, so I had to give it a try.

Call me crazy, but even though Helicon Focus has a retail price of more than $0, I find it to be a superior program. The interface is easier to use, there are export plugins from Adobe Lightroom, and the resulting product, in my mind, is superior. I created the images below using the 2 programs, each using a stack of 4 shots from my Olympus E-510 to create the resultant image. You be the judge, but I know I will continue to use Helicon Focus.

 CombineZP Comparison Shot (by Chester Bullock)

Helicon Focus
Helicon Focus Comparison Shot (by Chester Bullock)

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Gear Review – Wacom Intuos4 Tablet

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Back when I edited this image in Lightroom, I used the selective exposure tools to bring out some contrast in the clouds and sky. It was painful, and the result was less perfect than I would like. Next time I revisit this image though, I will have a new tool to help. You see, the first time I did this, I was using a mouse. Granted, it is a Razer optical mouse with on-the-fly adjustable sensitivity, but it is still a mouse. Kind of like when I am trying to drive a nail with the handle of a screwdriver. It works, but a hammer is more efficient. Well, now I have the right tool for this kind of editing – a Wacom Intuos4 tablet.

It all started with a gift card I won at a conference (also won an iPod 16GB Nano, which I gave to my wife). I had always wanted a tablet, but didn’t know much about them. So I started out small. I got a Wacom Bamboo Craft. The price was right, and installation was a breeze. But then I started fiddling with the controls. I didn’t want to use it to navigate my whole desktop. And the resolution seemed goofy since I am running a dual-monitor setup (my 17″ laptop screen and an HP w2007 widescreen monitor). It just didn’t feel right, and none of the settings let me do what I wanted (namely, limit the input to a specific program). OK, do I take it back and get something better (ie, more expensive) or do I just say screw it, I’m a mouse guy. No, I wasn’t going to give up. It’s my friend Jeff’s fault, he has a tablet and swears by it. So I had to give it an honest try.

Back to the retailer to return the Bamboo. And as luck would have it, they had the Intuos4 Small. Now we’re talking. Supposed to do what I want, AND comes with a mouse and more robust pen. OK, I am pretty excited at this point. Get it home, and let it sit for a few days. I do have a real job after all, and I had more important things to do than play with pixels (or maybe it was the 3 business trips in 5 weeks – my head is still spinning).

About 4 days later I installed it. Went just as easy as before. But this time, I found the settings the Bamboo was lacking. A few simple dialogue boxes later, and I can isolate it to one screen. Good enough for me. Open up a picture in Lightroom and start playing. Wow, this is a dream come true. Such control, and the quick buttons are helpful too. Not long and I am feeling really confident. Yep, this will ease my workflow for sure.

And then my 4 year old came down to see what Daddy was doing. She took to it instantly. I now have two original works of art created digitally by my 4 year old. She loves it, and still asks to use it. Way better than crayons she says.

The bottom line is this: if you do any sort of image editing, you owe it to yourself to try one of these. There are a couple of brands out there, but Wacom is the recognized leader. And speaking from experience, I can say I wouldn’t buy any other – and yes, I actually paid full retail for mine!).

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Golden Gate Bridge disappearing into the mist, as shot from the north side in Marin County, California

I have been to San Francisco three times in my life. Each time, I have taken what I think are some cool pictures of the Golden Gate. My last trip out was in July of 2009. I got in early enough on a Sunday that I was able to do a mini-roadtrip from my hotel (near Fisherman’s Wharf) across the Golden Gate and all the way up to Point Reyes. I am not a big fan of lighthouses per se, but this seemed out of the way, so I thought “what the heck?”. That’s the kind of tourist I like to be sometimes, going well off the beaten path. First things first though, had to get an updated shot of the Golden Gate.

I drove across it this time, which I had not done before. Exited at the visitors center on the northeast side of the bridge, and patiently waited for a parking spot. It had good views, but wasn’t providing the kind of shot I wanted. And there were a TON of people there. Back in the car, I crossed the highway and started driving on Conzelman Road. If you have driven this road, you know it requires your complete attention, especially after you pass the bunker at the summit and start going down the one lane road towards Nike-Hercules complex on Field Road. That said, I could tell I was seeing same new (to me) vistas with the Golden Gate in them. I drove on the road to the summit, and then hiked around the World War II bunker at the top. Interesting stuff, but with the wind and intermittent fog, nothing super compelling. I continued onward via car, down Conzelman to Field, then circling back around on McCullough to Conzelman and headed back to the 101.

Going back this way was breathtaking. Whereas the Golden Gate had been to my back before, now it was right in front of me. A few pullouts along the way offered interesting perspectives, but still not “the shot.” I continued on, finally stopping at Hendrick Point – the closest elevated point to the Golden Gate on the northwest side of the 101. I took the short hike to the old barracks/ gun emplacement and continued on right up to the fence. Clearly I wasn’t the first person to want a shot from here, as a pretty large hole had been made in the chain link. The wind was blasting pretty good, but I steadied myself on the fence and shot the above image through that hole. Came out pretty good I think. The color version of this image won a photo contest earlier this year. I didn’t expect to win anything, I was just proud of the shot.

If you like this image, it is now available for purchase (along with the color one). And between today and 1/1/10, use coupon code “powgg” for a 10% discount on these or any other prints in my photo gallery.

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Smugmug, or flickr, or what should I do here?

Each year about this time I wrestle with what should be an easy choice – do I keep my flickr site and whatever is serving as my art gallery, do I drop flickr, do I drop the art gallery? I go through this for about a week before deciding to leave things as they are. I wonder who else goes through this?

Here is my most recent rationalization for maintaining the status quo this year.

A. flickr is crazy cheap. $25/ year to maintain unlimited uploads, the price is ahrd to beat.

B. flickr makes sharing easy. Add in the Greasemonkey scripts for AllSizes and sharing on forums, etc is super simple.

C. the community in flickr is second to none. They definitely have nailed it in terms of getting exposure for your photos within the flickr world.

I am going to keep my art gallery host also, for the simple reason that I just started it and it doesn’t expire until next November. I stopped using Zenfolio (and would not recommend it to anyone) and started using SmugMug. I’ll talk about that decision in a future post.

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DIY Monday – Creating the Wet Look

Oogave product lineup
Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to do a product shoot for a local soft drink company who was taking their product national in Whole Foods. Made from agave cactus nectars, these drinks are competing for shelf space with a whole host of competitors. The owner was rolling out new labeling and needed pics quick. He chose me because of my experience in shooting highly reflective surfaces, particularly glass bottles. To make the images more compelling, the owner wanted the bottles to look like they had just come out of a cooler. Fair enough, but now I needed to figure out how to do it.

The solution turned out to be fairly simple. I set the shot up as I normally would for shooting glass, got the lighting right, checked some test images and liked what I had. Then I used a common household spray bottle filled with water (nozzle set to a fine mist) and sprayed the bottles lightly. The water beaded up naturally, and I started shooting. It was actually pretty simple.

A couple of things to note when doing this:

  • If you need to respray them, let them dry first. Towelling the bottles off can result in torn labels.
  • Use extra caution if the labels are printed on regular paper. Let the water sit too long, and they will change color.
  • Take your time. Rearrange the items as necessary, let them dry completely, then rewet as needed.

But Wait, There’s More…
Spiderweb by Sam Pierson
Just a couple of weeks ago I came across some very cool photos of spiderwebs that had waterdrops on them. The photographer, Sam Pierson, had gone out one morning after a foggy night and got some incredible shots (link above goes to a great gallery of them). When I saw this, I thought “those are awesome, I want to make one”. I don’t have any good webs like that in my area (at least I haven’t found any), but when I do locate some, I plan to take my spray bottle with me and see if the same principle can be applied to the webs. I think you can make the wet look whenever you want.

Special thanks to Sam for letting me use his picture here. You simply must check out his gallery, he has some outstanding images there. For more information about Oogave Soda, check out their website.

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This is a side chapel at the famed San Xavier del Bac mission outside of Tucson, Arizona. From the mission website:

The present church was built from 1783 – 1797 by the Franciscan Fathers Juan Bautista Velderrain and Juan Bautista Llorenz. Little is know about the actual labor of the construction of the church, who was the architect, who were the artisans, but many believe it was the Tohono O’odham who fufilled these roles. San Xavier Mission is acclaimed by many to be the finest example of mission architecture in the United States. It is a graceful blend of Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture, yet the blending is so complete it is hard to tell where one type begins and another ends.

Whether you prefer this color version or the black and white version, they are both available in my art gallery for purchase as prints or downloads.

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Our lights (by Bullock Family)
These are our lights this year. I just grabbed my camera, went outside, and started shooting. Wish I had remembered about the Strobist guide to shooting holiday lights from 3 years ago. But I found the link, and you can benefit from it’s great tips. Strobist: How To Photograph Christmas Lights.

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