Saturday, April 21, 2018

In the Neighborhood

I was standing on the corner photographing something utterly boring just for practice, when I quickly turned to capture this cyclist riding through an empty intersection. Quick without looking, too quick, as I swung the camera around I got a lot of motion blur, ruining the photo. Or did I?

bad photo + Photoshop = Art

I started out by trying to disguise the motion blur cranking up the clarity slider, dehaze, and contrast, crushing the blacks and selectively desaturating the reds just for kicks. Still not enough, I opened it in photoshop and applied a gaussian blur layer to smooth out the shake.

For reference here is the original:

And zooming in you can see the eye-straining shake in the buildings and trees.

Art. Sure.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Looking Up

Art School in Oakland, California

View from Inside the San Francisco Skyline

Airplane Flying over the Philips Building in Foster City

Friday, April 13, 2018

Sunset Study #2: Walk on the Ocean

Mt Tamalpais State Park, Panorama Highway, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, sunset, crowds gathered, spectacular. 

It started on a whim, a free afternoon, a drive out to the coast, a golden hour shoot with a wide angle lens. 17mm takes in a lot of scenery.

Although I found at 35mm I could frame it better.

I walked down to this tree that struck me.

Then, just before sunset, I made my way back to the road, 1.5 miles, and drove up to a point where people had gathered to watch the sun set.

Photographers gathered too.

And then it got dark, the park closed, and we went home.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sunset Study #1: The Local Park

After work I saw the sky full of high, wispy clouds and I could tell it was going to be a good sunset. I had about two hours so I went to a nearby park featuring a big hill overlooking the bay, the city, the golden gate. Claremont Canyon. Canon 6D with a 17-40mm ultra-wide zoom.

New hiking shoes, trying them for the first time and they work great. After many many tries I may have finally found the perfect shoes for me. The hill was steep, and then the next hill even steeper. Between was this view.

And flowers were in bloom. I don't know flowers, but I know pretty.

And the bees were busy. Bee happy, bee better, bee yourself. To get this shot at 17mm - ultra wide angle, I had to get in close, in the middle of a little swarm. A little nervous but the bees were busy with flowers and didn't bother me. Much.

Then the sun set behind the city. Switch to a 70-300mm telephoto.

Not quite behind the city, nor behind the bridge and farther to the right, behind the hills. But the light, that refracted sunlight spread around the horizon in golden red hues.

The sky faded to dark and the city lights came on.

It got darker, and I went home.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

I Am Not a Pro

Delusions of grandeur are as good as a prerequisite for achievement, shoot for the moon live among the stars and all that. But there is such a thing as the limits of my ability, and digital manual focus shooting friends at a music festival, or more accurately during SXSW, walking back up South Congress after a dinner of Torchy's Tacos, stopping by a cowboy hat shop trying on cowboy hats while a rockabilly band rocked out like nobody's business.

Look closely, the subject is out of focus and the guitarist is in focus. Exactly opposite how it should be. Because I had manual focus set to three meters instead of one. Using manual focus at night is a pro trick street shooting technique and hella difficult to keep up with, where the focus is all the time, are you shooting close or shooting far? Do you even know? So what should have been a focus distance of half a meter was more like, she's blurry and the rockabilly guitar is clear as day.

I may as well have used a cell phone. Except for the extra color depth and contrast I was able to use to turn a slightly out of focus picture into a more artistic soft focus.

From now on I'll use autofocus like a normal person, with the full-press snap option, itself a neat semi-pro trick.

Ricoh GR Zone Focusing Tips for Street Photography

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Camera Straps

If your camera has a wrist strap, always put it around your wrist before taking a picture. Yes, you may drop the camera, but you might also do this.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Found My Pot o' Gold

There's a treasure in every book.

The one time I don't bring a real camera, this beautiful full rainbow appears, and at the end of the rainbow, a bookstore. Each book a treasure, and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Sure, a smartphone can record it, but a smartphone just doesn't have the dynamic range or color depth needed for challenging lighting conditions, or the subtlety of a rainbow's colors. There simply aren't enough photons hitting that tiny camera sensor.

Not as vibrant as it could have been. But it'll have to do.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Shadow of the World

Sometimes I forget how beautiful a lunar eclipse can be. Then early Wednesday morning, 5AM, I see a reminder in sharp relief, blood red moon flying through the shadow of the world against a background of distant stars.

Backing up a few days, it was late Sunday afternoon and I found myself walking up this hill to see the nearly full moon rising in the blue sky in front of me. There it is, swinging its way around to eclipse. At this moment I knew I would be ready.

Now a word about being on time.

The solar system bodies are so massive, there's so much momentum balanced against so much gravity, that the inevitable wobbles of things flying through empty space are held minuscule in comparison to what is rightly called the celestial clockwork. Like clockwork, it is on time. It's important to get yourself in tune with the moon and the sun a few days in advance, prepare your circadian rhythms to coincide with the meeting of the two. If you're late, you miss it. Sleep in, you miss it. Running just a little behind schedule, and you miss it. It's been a long time since I woke up at 3AM to see something like this but as I woke up, got on my way, arrived, there was such excitement I wondered why I don't do this all the time.

Last year's solar eclipse happened on time, to the second, as did this year's lunar eclipse. Supermoon, blue moon, blood moon. What really mattered to me is that it would be low to the horizon, before sunrise, where I could photograph it framed with some landmark.

I wasn't the only one with this idea.

The moon went into eclipse high in the sky, and as I drove to my planned spot, I saw and stopped in front of the Palace of Fine Arts because the scene was just too perfect. Even handheld with a micro-4/3 compact camera.

Of course, when I got to the parking lot there were already people lined up with cameras. The late night photo geek community! I love it!

So... here's what went right...
  • Preparing my kit - I put everything I thought I would need in a backpack the day before. The plan was to wake up and grab this one bag as I walk, zombie-like, out the door. 
  • Not my first eclipse - Practice makes perfect! There are some tricks to photographing the moon, mostly around getting a precise manual focus and eliminating even the slightest vibration. You go out, you photograph, you go back home and see what you can improve. You get better each time. 
  • Planning ahead - It's easy nowadays to know exactly where the moon will rise or set from any location using a phone app. I was thinking about this in the weeks before and exploring different places I might want to be. In the end, I chose a spot where the moon would set behind the Golden Gate Bridge. As it turns out, a lot of other people had reached the same conclusion, as I learned when I looked for parking!
And... here's what didn't go so well...
  • Preparing my kit - I forgot a few small things, like attaching the cameras to mounting plates, bringing a multitool, and my headlamp wasn't where I thought it was. 
  • Not doing a practice run - I thought about Saturday night, waking up at 4AM, driving a short distance somewhere, and photographing the moon, but I didn't. I slept in. I was lucky I didn't forget anything critical, or anything that couldn't be improvised around. Mostly.
  • Condensation - As sunrise approached the lens fogged up something fierce, and I didn't even notice at first. So a bunch of photos in the middle of the series had fog blur. This is also when I realized I hadn't brought a lens cloth. Luckily many hiking shirts have one sewed in, and I had a small microfiber bag. But still, some of those photos had some blur.

    This is a great picture otherwise

These things are not easy. These things are worth it. We run around the surface of this spinning globe, chasing the sun, chasing the moon, chasing the shadow of the world.

Do the math. Know the time, place, and exposure.


Decisive moments.

Just paying attention and being, really being there.

Knowing these moments are what make up life.

And it's good to know I'm not the only crazy one out there.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


"What are you doing?"

"I think I can get a good photo of the valley and the stars using a long exposure."

"So, how long...?"

"Fifteen seconds ought to be good, I figure."

"No, I mean how long are we going to be here?"

"Oh. Um, almost done."

By now we've established that a full frame camera with 24mm f/1.4 lens is my favorite setup for night landscapes and starscapes. And if we find ourselves looking out over a valley under a brilliant night sky, and if I mistakenly left the lens - and the tripod - back at the hotel, I can capture the scene almost as well with a good pocket camera.

Another thing we've learned is that watching someone else take pictures is really boring.

It had been a long day, up Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, then back down to the Alwhanee, er Majestic Hotel in time for dinner and a sunset. We were driving back when we passed Tunnel View. We both noticed a crowd of people milling about in the darkness.

"Hey look, lots of people checking out the view. In the dark."


"Want to go see the dark view?"


And we pulled in. Plenty of parking available, and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness a beautiful dome of stars revealed itself. A crescent moon illuminated the landscape. We stood in awe. And that's when I realized I'd forgotten to bring the astro lens and tripod. No matter, I have two good cameras with me, the Canon 6D with ultra-wide zoom in the trunk of our car with my backpack, and my Ricoh GR compact, in my pocket as always. I figured the GR has an ASP-C sensor - same as you get in most DSLRs - and a relatively fast and wide lens. Being on hand, the GR became my choice. It also has a flat bottom suitable for propping up on a rock wall. So I prop it up, and after a few minutes of fiddling, I'd captured the night scene as we remember it.

Shoot the Stars

Just about any modern digital camera can take a starscape photograph. All you need is a dark sky, an steady mount, and some knowledge about your camera's features. Little secret: If the camera is very still you can leave the shutter open for a long time and collect a lot of light. While shooting handheld I don't like to go slower than 1/125, or if it's very dark 1/60 if I hold still - I like a fast shutter speed to minimize shake blur for sharper photos. However, photographing the stars requires a lot of light, and the limiting factor here is the rotation of the earth making the stars appear to move across the picture, smearing their light on the sensor. The wider the angle the longer it takes to produce these star trails. If you explore the googles and the photo blogs you can find some handy charts illustrating theoretical limits of different lens and sensor combinations. My rule of thumb is something like...

  • 50mm, 5-10 seonds
  • 24mm, 15-20 seconds
  • 14mm, 25-30 seconds

Pointing the camera further north - or south - closer to the celestial pole where the apparent motion of the stars is faster, allows more open shutter time, while for me some of the more interesting stuff (Orion, Milky Way core, and so on) is near the equator where there's less time. So with the same setup I might use a 20 second exposure for Cassiopeia, and 15 seconds for Sagittarius.

Aperture? As wide open as possible, stopping down just enough to make sure the corners are sharp.

ISO? How much can your sensor take before getting noisy? That's something you'll learn from trial and error, experimentation, and photo discussion groups.

For example, my Ricoh GR has an equivalent field of view of 28mm and 15 seconds will get plenty of light and limit star trails. With the 6D I usually go for a sensor speed of ISO 3200 or even 6400 (I once got a spectacular black and white at 25,600 camping under the milky way at high altitude and crystal clear skies) but the GR is a lot cleaner at 1600. So 15 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 is my go-to setting under dark skies.

There's a few numbers you have to learn, but once you learn them, you can pretty much set the exposure the same way every time, and you'll get a feel for adjusting this for different conditions... moonlight, car headlights, clouds, and so on. With experience you'll learn what works.

And Don't Be Annoying

The last thing everyone wants is to stand around while you fiddle endlessly with a complicated camera. You should be able to set up and take this shot in the same amount of time it takes to organize people into a group photo.


One skill you absolutely need to master is manual focus. Again, the Internet has great resources and how-to articles. The short answer is to focus on a bright star using the camera's LCD screen at maximum zoom. If you're using a fully manual lens you can even mark the spot on the focuser. Infinity will be in the same place every time.

Framing Your Shot

The next challenge of photographing in a dark environment is simply pointing the camera. When it's a dark night, your LCD screen is solid black, making adjustments tricky. Even with a pentaprism DSLR, it can be difficult to see what's in the corner of the frame. So how do we frame the shot? Trial and error.

In the following sequence you see a number of photos where I take the picture, look at it on the camera's LCD screen, and move the camera in a direction and amount that is basically a best guess.

Too close, that tree

Too low, the rock wall is visible at the bottom

Even worse

Better. I see the whole tree and more sky now
Obviously if each picture is a 15 second exposure, this can take a long time, right? So, we can fix that. Instead of using the camera's optimal settings, crank up the ISO to maximum and shorten the exposure time to a few seconds. The pictures will be noisy as all get out, nothing you'll want to show off, but they will let you see the composition of the shot and quickly zero in on the picture you want.

Once you have it framed, put your settings in the optimal mode for that final shot. With some post processing and noise reduction, you might find you have a picture you'll be proud to hang in the living room or share on your social face gram.

One Last Skill

The final skill for taking these pictures, for taking a picture like you would any vacation snapshot, is most critical. You must be able to do all of the above, quickly, in the dark. Forget to focus? The shot is ruined. Auto ISO? Ruined. Switching to the wrong exposure? Accidentally push the wrong button because it's dark? Forget it. You should be able to say, "Wow, look at that sky," get out your camera, focus, adjust the framing with quick shots, and reset the exposure for your final picture, all before your friends and family get tired of waiting for you. Not that sitting under the stars is the worst burden you could impose on them! But the more you're there and present for the people around you, rather than just obsessing with your camera, the better for everyone. 


Nobody does anything perfectly the first time. It takes practice, it takes attention to detail, it takes constant self-improvement. A hobby is something you spend time on, and this is a good one. So next time there's a meteor shower, invite your friends to spend a night out in the woods watching shooting stars. Bring a picnic basket. While everyone is ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the celestial show, you'll have all the time you need.