Monday, October 22, 2012

Reid Park Rose Garden

This morning I arrived early for my Sketchbook Brigade meetup at the Reid Park Rose Garden so that I may photograph the roses in the morning light.  The skies were blue, so I knew I wasn't going to benefit from the soft light of cloud cover, but I hoped that this time of year the light would not be too harsh (like it is during the peak of summer).

I was pleased!  Hundreds of roses were nicely in bloom, and I enjoyed photographing the morning light on them.  I was even able to find some roses still in shade, and some nicely back-lit.  Though there were plenty of deep red roses in bloom, I found myself favoring the subtle colors in the lighter blooms.

 It was wonderful to get back behind my 20D and 70-200 lens photographing flowers again.  Having the camera on a sturdy tripod allowed me to find compositions I liked, and keep the camera steady.  I set my camera to mirror lock-up enable, used the 2-second timer to further optimize sharpness.
Reid Park Rose Garden is located off Country Club just north of 22nd Street in Tucson, and is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fall in Northern Arizona

Our recent visit to Flagstaff coincided with one of the most spectacular displays of fall color that can be had in Arizona.  The abundant aspen groves that reside on the San Francisco Peaks were aglow with yellow fire during our October 1st hike up the Inner Basin trail from Locket Meadow.  A few images from my LX5:

Friday, August 24, 2012

The LX5 At Night

Milky Way setting behind Mt. Whitney and adjoining spires
On a recent backpacking trip in the high Sierras of California, it was a no-brainer for me to only take my compact Panasonic LX5 camera and Gorillapod tripod.  After all, not only was I hiking a steep trail (Mountaineer's Route) with a 4750-foot elevation gain in 4 miles, I had to carry the usual backpacking stuff PLUS rock climbing gear on my back!  But in taking this lightweight camera (in a waist pouch), I wasn't giving up very much in capability, even when photographing a night sky.  On our last night camped at Iceberg, I awakened in the middle of the night to find a sky exploding with stars.  Remember, at high altitude there is less atmosphere to block the stars!  Our camp at Iceberg Lake, at the base of Mount Whitney, was at an elevation of 12,600 feet, so not much atmosphere there!  Just enough to breathe, sort of.

So upon seeing this wonderfully starry sky I decided to get out of my warm down bag and start layering all my clothes and try to photograph the stars with my LX5 mounted on my Gorillapod.  My wonderful husband decided to get up too, and was very helpful in assisting me with his opinions and advice for position, exposure, light-painting etc.

I set the camera to Manual mode, set f/number to its widest setting (f/2.0), set ISO to 1600 (ouch), and exposure time to 20 seconds.  Using my Gorillapod, I set the camera on a rock and pointed so that I'd get silhouettes of Mount Whitney and the adjoining granite buttresses against the starry sky.  We spent an hour and half trying different things, including using our meager headlamps to paint Mount Whitney (futile effort) and illuminate the inside of our tent (which just ended up showcasing the high digital noise this camera has at ISO 1600).  But the best result of the endeavor, the photo I post here, is not bad, I think...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Photographing Utah and Wyoming

Ten Sleep Creek, Wyoming shot with 20D, yellow-blue polarizer
So I've processed all my photos from this month-long road trip through Utah and Wyoming, and I'm happy with the visual memories of a great trip they provide.  I brought my new Panasonic LX5 and was happy to take it through its paces, and I also brought my Canon 20D with these lenses:  10-22, 50, 70-200, and Nikon 5T closeup lens (for the 70-200).  If I had know we were going to Yellowstone I would have brought my 300 f/4 and 1.4x converter, as we were lucky to see wolves and bears!

What did I learn from this photography experience?  Well, the main thing that became apparent to me after I processed all my photos is that while the LX5 is a great little camera, it just doesn't hold a candle to what can be done with a quality dSLR/lens combination.  Now I knew this to be the case, but it helps to actually experience it.

Let's take the case of flower photography.  One of the keys to the type of flower photography I like to do is bokeh, the smooth creamy background that really showcases a beautiful flower.  Though I can get the background to blur with the LX5, using a wide-open aperture and a close-up diopter lens, I just cannot get the bokeh I so desire.  The image below is an example of the best I could do with this camera:

Dandelion shot with LX5, f/3.3 (the widest aperture allowable at maximum zoom).
On the other hand, my 20D/70-200/Nikon 5T combo was a joy to use, and provided me flower images like these:

Wyoming wildflower shot with 20D, 70-200 lens with 5T closeup lens
Beetle on flower, shot with 20D, 70-200 lens with 5T closeup lens
Oh, love that bokeh!  What a joy to create.

As I said earlier, we had the rare opportunity to photograph wolves in Yellowstone and while I surely wished I had my longer lens and converter with me, at least I had the 70-200 and was able to photograph this (using the magic of "digital zoom", i.e. crop tool):

Wolf in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP, shot with 20D+70-200 lens, digitally zoomed
But for all the advantages of the 20D, the LX5 does have some great advantages, portability and the ability to photograph spontaneously being at the top of the list.  When leaving our Ten Sleep campsite we were surprised to find our road out blocked by a cattle drive!  I was able to easily grab my LX5 for this shot:

Wyoming cattle drive, shot with LX5

And of course, while doing a multi-pitch rock climb, the LX5 was nice and portable for shots like these:

Hiking up to climb Castleton Tower near Moab, UT, shot with LX5

In the notch before the last pitch up Castleton Tower, UT, shot with LX5

I love the choice of the 16:9 format in the LX5, which captures an almost panoramic view of a landscape, or in the case of the rock face above, accentuates the sheer vertical nature of the rock.

I had great fun, and I learned what I already knew in that I cannot completely replace a dSLR with a compact camera, no matter how quality that camera is.  I'm glad, because I can continue to appreciate my good old 20D.

P.S. If anyone is interested I have a complete album of the trip on Facebook.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Back home after a month road-trippin'!

Mark and I took a month-long road  trip through Utah and Wyoming to camp, rock climb, and just see the sights.  It was a great opportunity to really get more experience with the new LX5 camera, and have fun with my good ol' Canon 20D too.  I love to photograph when I travel, so many new sights inspire me.  

So I have tons of photos to process, and I am currently making my way through it.  The very first photo I couldn't wait to look at on the computer screen was my attempt to capture the Milky Way while we were in Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming.  Talk about dark skies, that place is remote.  I know the Canon 20D is not the best at long exposures at high ISO's, but I tested my system to the max (f/3.5 at 10mm, ISO 1600, 25 sec exposure), and after a few tweaks to the RAW file to increase exposure further, I came up with this:

Not too bad for the "ancient" 20D.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

When the desert is in the doldrums, shoot macro

Though I absolutely love summer, even in the desert, I find June to be the most uninspiring month for landscape photography here in Tucson.  Quickly after sunrise the sun gets bright and hot, and stays that way until sunset.  It's before our summer monsoons so there is typically not a cloud in the sky.  It's just not inspiring.  So what can a photographer do?  Shoot macro!

I feel like one can shoot macro anywhere, anytime.  Even in the heat of summer there is life about, interesting elements to inspect at close range.  For me, this is an often-overlooked genre of photography, and I am telling myself now that in order to keep shooting when in the doldrums, mount that macro lens on the camera, and the flash too, if need be (to counter that bright light).  Both my macro lens and my 430EX flash have been among the least-used tools in my kit.  There's no excuse for that.

Backlit sago palm leaves, up close
So this morning I saw that bright morning light streaming through our east-facing patio door, illuminating our sago palm, and I delayed breakfast, mounted the 100mm macro lens (with Nikon 5T closeup lens already on) onto my 20D, and mounted the camera onto a tripod, sat on the floor, and looked through the lens at the amazing glowing green textures of the back-lit palm leaves.  There is magic to be found, even in the doldrums of a desert summer.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Some LX5 explorations on the billiards table

One of the great things about the LX5 optics is the f/2.0 lens.  I am curious how much background blur I could get with the aperture wide open, given that the LX5 has a small sensor compared to a dSLR.  I know I'll continue to explore that feature, but I did an initial look on our billiards table.  In the widest angle setting, I positioned the camera very close to the number 4 ball and selectively auto-focused on that.  Below is a side-by-side comparison of f/2.0 vs. f/4.0.  The background is certainly blurrier in the f/2.0 shot, but also interesting to compare is how the number 15 ball is blurry in the f/2.0 shot, but much sharper in the f/4.0 shot.  I should have taken an f/8.0 shot, but since reading that these compact cameras suffer from diffraction blur beyond about f/4.5 I thought I'd "focus" my efforts at about f/4.0.

And just a quick comparison of the zoom range effect on viewing angle.  Note that the zoom range of the LX5 is 24 to 90 mm (35mm camera equivalent).  Obviously I was closer to the ball at the widest angle, but this image is actually also a visual comparison of the closest focusing distance between the two zoom ranges.    I set the camera down onto the table at a distance where it would not focus (giving me red warning indicators), and kept sliding the camera further away until the camera could successfully focus.  I had the macro focus switch on (on the left side of the lens) and used autofocus to selectively focus on the number "12".  Note that when focusing at the closest range possible, the background balls end up blurred at f/4.0:

In macro mode (switch on left side of lens) the closest focusing distance at wide angle is extremely close (1 cm), but when zoomed in at the longest focal length it is much larger (30 cm is the spec I saw).  One way to reduce the minimum focusing distance at longer focal length is to use a close-up lens.  I just happened to have one, a cheap Rolev +2 diopter I bought back in the early 1980's for my Olympus OM-2 camera.  It just happened to have 52mm threads that screw right on to my LX5 adapter tube.  So below is a visual comparison of the minimum focusing distance at full zoom, with and without the close-up lens:

I was concerned that the Rolev diopter, given that it is an inexpensive single-element close-up lens, would cause a degradation in image quality, but in this case I do not see an adverse effect.  I think it's worth continued explorations...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why I Replaced My Dear Canon G9

Scratched front element on my G9

My Canon G9 was dear to me because in my experience I found that more and more I desired, no needed really, to be a "lightweight photographer".  And the G9 made great images for me for over 4 years.  Now, not so much.  Now there are some awfully deep scratches on the front element that, in some lighting scenarios, just destroys the image quality.  When pointing into a back-lit scene, I would get resultant light spots caused by the sun's light refracting on the scratches.  For a few months I told myself that I could live with that.  But after taking the G9 as my sole camera on a backpacking trip earlier this year into the Grand Canyon and finding that the scratches also degraded the image even in overcast light, I decided I needed to do something about it.

Light spots caused by lens scratches
Light spot on black shorts, even in overcast light

My choices were to 1) buy a lens kit and ask Mark (who's handy with electronics and small parts) to replace it (cost about $50), 2) send the camera to Canon to have them replace the lens kit (cost at least $150), or 3) to look into a replacement compact camera (cost about $370).  I agonized over this decision for awhile because I am naturally a frugal person and I like to use equipment until they die and cannot be resurrected (my only dSLR is the Canon 20D, purchased in 2005 and still going strong!).  I considered option 1 until I simply could not find instructions on the Internet on how to replace the lens element yourself.  I thought there was of course risk inherent in that solution.  Option 2 was tempting, but the cost of repair was starting to approach half the cost of a new camera (thankfully, the wonders of technology are currently acting as a hedge against inflation).  So I started looking at Option 3.

I usually try to be ignorant of the latest and greatest in camera technology because I don't want to find myself tempted by what I "need" to have.  But I started looking at what is out there now, and I found myself zeroing in on the Canon S100.  I was attracted to the compact size, smaller than my G9, and the wide angle capability of 24mm equivalent (compared to G9's 35mm equivalent widest angle).  I have often wished for a wider viewing angle on my G9 so 24mm would be great!  So I wrote up a list of G9 features vs. S100 so I could lay out for myself the additional capability I would get with a new camera (aside from images not marred from lens scratches, of course).  When I started reading reviews, however, some of the blush of the S100 started to diminish as I read about poor battery life.  When I am in the back-country I don't want to be plagued with that.

Then I wondered what Darwin Wiggett (who turned me on to the Canon G9) was using as a compact camera these days.  He did upgrade to a G11 then I gather has since adopted a more minimalist stance and has gotten rid of any extraneous camera gear, including his G11.  But his wife, Samantha, who is also a photographer, found herself choosing a Panasonic DMC-LX5 as her compact run-around camera (I guess they actually share the LX5).  Hmm...I remember when I was looking into a compact camera back in 2008 I was considering I think it was the LX2 at the time.  But what's this LX5 about?

Well, upon further study into the LX5 I decided it was the camera for me.  Though a tiny bit bigger than the S100 (though still lighter and about the same size as the G9), it has some advantages over the S100:  longer battery life, wider aperture at maximum zoom (f/3.3), greater range of exposure compensation (+3ev), and still has the wonderfully appealing 24mm equivalent at it's widest angle.  Oh, and it has a nice solid lens cap to protect that big beautiful Leica lens!

My new baby
So now I'm a proud owner of an LX5, and I intend to use it quite extensively.  And hopefully take better care of it than I did my Canon G9!

P.S.  If you care to see more photos from that Grand Canyon backpack, I wrote a trip report here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Time to Update My Post-Processing Toolbox

My eyes have recently been opened to the potential powers of modern-day image post-processing tools and methods.  Since 2005 when I received Photoshop Elements 2.0 (included with my Canon 20D purchase) I've pretty much stuck with my usual post-processing workflow and have not really evolved with the times.  With my archaic methods, my ability to deal with images taken in difficult lighting (such as when the foreground is shaded or dark compared to a very bright background) was very limited.  My version of Elements was too old to even be able to use Adobe Camera Raw (ACR).

So I've been reading up and what people are using today, and I downloaded a trial of the latest Photoshop Elements 10 and have been playing with that, and learning about the included ACR.  I have also been reading online about HDR, and downloaded a free trial of Photomatix.

Three Post-Processing Options
The three images above are the results of my explorations into this new software on a RAW image that was taken in difficult lighting.  My husband and I were sitting in the shade, having a beer, on a bright sunny late-afternoon in Tucson.  The foreground was very dark, yet the background elements and sky were very bright.

The left-most image is a result of adjustments using ACR and PSE 10.  In ACR I was able to lighten the foreground considerably using the "Fill Light" slider.  I also tweaked the "Vibrance" slider to the right to deepen the blues and yellows in the image.

I then thought I'd generate 3 TIFF files, adjusting the exposure of each in ACR (-2ev, 0ev, and +2ev), and blending them together.  This is known as "pseudo-HDR", because the source file of the HDR processing is a single RAW image.  In the above comparison, the middle image is a result of Photoshop Elements "Photomerge Exposure Merge" capability (new since PSE 8), and the right-most image is a result from my trial of Photomatix Pro.  In Photomatix, I started with the default setting of the Details Enhancer, then tweaked the sliders and knobs until I was satisfied.  There are so many sliders and buttons with this tool, it seems like it would take quite a bit of experimentation to get satisfactory results.  The results can get pretty wild with Photomatix.

So in looking at the comparison, all are much better than I could have gotten with Photoshop Elements 2, but I can't help but appreciate how much the beer bottle "glows" in the Photomatix version.  I've experimented with other images in my Photomatix trial, including bracketed exposures, and this glowing effect seems characteristic of the software.  It's pretty neat, if not realistic.  In a sense, since I am predominantly a nature photographer, I have in general been preferring the greater realism I can achieve with ACR and PSE10, whether I make the fill light/recover adjustments in ACR, or I merge multiple exposures using Photomerge.  

But I have to admit, for man-made objects, the results from Photomatix are pretty cool.