Providence Roller Derby 4/7/18 Photos

A photo project for a waiting audience doesn’t ship when it’s done. It ships when…okay, I hadn’t really thought the rest of this sentence out. I know it involves wanting people to see your photos while they’re still relevant. Self-loathing certainly factors in there somewhere, too, but then again doesn’t it always?

Here are my photos from Providence Roller Derby‘s Spring opener on April 7. Check ’em out on Flickr.

Providence Roller Derby 4/7/18

Continue reading “Providence Roller Derby 4/7/18 Photos”

This Soviet 1,100mm Lens is Basically a Telescope with a Camera Mount

This Soviet 1,100mm Lens is Basically a Telescope with a Camera Mount:

Ever wanted to strap a portable telescope to the end of your camera and carry it around? With the soviet-made MTO 1000A 1,100mm f/10.5 mirror lens, you can just about do it. A monster of a lens, Christopher Frost Photography put it through its paces for one of his Weird Lens Reviews.

(Via PetaPixel.)

This Soviet lens is heavy, bonkers, and cheap. I want one. I’m certain that it takes “terrible” photos, relative to what a proper modern superzoom lens made in a non-collapsed Communist nation could do. But that’s not really the point, is it? This lens looks like it’s a lot of fun. It’d also encourage me to try some things I can’t do with any of my existing (and sensible) lenses.

Any item that lets you have fun and gets you to try new things has to be worth every penny of its asking price.

(I’m also aware that my micro four thirds camera doubles the focal length of any lens it uses. What in Heaven’s name would it be like to shoot with a 2200mm lens?!?) 

Twitter Question: Nexus 5X as a primary camera?

Cory Hixson asked me a question about the Nexus 5X that was interesting and complicated enough that my reply became a blog post:


I’ve just finished recording an Ihnatko Almanac about traveling with a phone as your sole camera, and about camera choices in general, so this topic is still on my mind. I’m a little stuck on the phrase “primary camera.”

In a way, I’m the least helpful person to ask for camera advice. I’m an Enthusiastic Amateur, plus I’m a technology columnist. This means I don’t know about the needs of the average camera user and I’m way too arrogant to try to find out.

I’m going to zero in on the word “you” in this question. I wouldn’t be choosing a phone as my primary camera. I’m too persnickety about the results, and I want to have lots of control. I’ve just come back from a week at Yosemite and I would have missed my flight rather than leave home without my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and some lenses.

Nonetheless, for three days in New York city the week before that, I left the gear at home and relied solely on the Nexus 5X. Mostly because I had to catch a 6:30 AM train, so I was grumpy, and in no mood to sling a camera around my neck and find room in my bag for an extra lens.

I also knew that the Nexus 5X camera was up to the job of Taking Swell Photos:

 

Added another Daniel Chester French to my Life List. Outside the Hamilton Custom House, NYC.

A photo posted by Andy Ihnatko (@ihnatko) onMar 9, 2016 at 12:00pm PST

When I choose a daily carry phone, I want the best camera I can get but I’m trying to maximize other variables as well. I think the iPhone 6S Plus has the best camera overall, but I wouldn’t switch back to iOS just to get the camera. I think the Samsung Galaxy S series has the best camera on any Android phone (and it’s better than the iPhone’s in many ways), but I see many advantages to Nexus devices, and their “fresh from Google” updates, that I want more than that camera. If I had bought something else, I’d only be trading an excellent camera for a better one.

It’d be hard for me to choose a phone as my primary camera. I tend to think in terms of an arsenal of devices. I’ve got the Olympus for situations where I foresee myself immersing myself in photography and wanting to come away with the best photo possible. I’ve can trust the Nexus for those situations where I’m expecting to take mostly snapshots, or didn’t know that I’d be confronted with something amazing, or I just couldn’t be arsed to carry the howitzer with me all day. I keep attempting to seduce myself into buying a nice, tiny camera, such as a first-gen Sony RX100. The argument for is “teensy camera with a big sensor, a big lens, full manual controls and handling, and RAW capture.” The argument against is “$400, and don’t you already have a nice camera, doofus?” But I keep wishing for a “daily carry” camera that was a big leap better than my phone.

One shouldn’t become like one of those weekend golfers who keeps buying new and increasingly-exotic putters, thinking it’ll improve their performance. Every camera has limits. Even this Olympus that I love so much has limits. But great things happen when you try to find a solution to a creative problem that works within those limits. Phones don’t have zoom lenses. Okay, but is the photo of that Daniel Chester French sculpture no good because it’s a tight crop of a much larger photo? The resulting 3 megapixel resolution forced me to be even more careful about the composition; every pixel was carrying such a great load.

Plus, our desktop tools for massaging photos are extraordinary. I can do things with exposure, depth of color, and addressing sensor noise that would have been a fantasy just a few years ago. So really, I could just concentrate on framing the shot correctly and tapping the shutter button at the right moment.

The direct answer to Cory’s question is that any premium phone, and even most midrange ones, will take excellent photos. So don’t worry about it. Buy the phone that presents the best total package for you.

These sorts of answers can be very very frustrating, however. So if pressed, I will sigh and say “If I had to rely on a phone as my primary camera, it’d be an iPhone 6s Plus. Image quality is a real tossup between it and the Samsung Galaxy, but the iPhone’s speed and reliability tilt the scales.”

Yeah. That answer definitely took more than 140 characters, eh?

Photo Dump

Day Three at CocoaConf Yosemite. This is a magnificent conference that inspires a speaker to do his or her very best, both to match the level of the other talks and as an audition for a slot at next year’s.

I enjoyed the wet weather during last year’s conference. Yosemite is rocks and trees and earth, not just sky, and precipitation works wonders on those things. And then there’s the smell! Why does water do such terrible things to the odor of a dog, but does the sort of things to the aroma of a forest that makes you hungry for a thick steak after taking a long walk through it?

That said, we’ve had utterly cloudless skies all week. The park is so pretty that my regret at not packing my tripod for the trip steadily declined into self-hatred. Fortunately, there was a shop a couple of miles away that rents tripods to dopes.

The weather has changed but the Internet situation is still…I can’t bring myself to say anything negative about Yosemite. I’ll put it this way, instead: “Gosh! Yosemite is so beautiful and being here is so peaceful that the park doesn’t want you to be distracted by Facebook! Or Instagram! Or anything that requires transmission of any packet of digital data larger than what one could possibly memorize and then read to someone over the phone!”

I’ve been having loads of fun taking loads of fab photos. But I can’t post them until I check into my next hotel in a day or two.

I did want to post something all the same, so:

“A blue and black bird perched on a branch just outside my balcony, looking into the lens with an expression of weary suspicion.”

“A plate containing one of the tastiest burritos and taco I’ve ever had.”

“A landscape shot from the Ansel Adams vista point, with my Nexus 5X, that turned out so well that it kind of startled me.”

“A tight shot of Yosemite Falls, framed by trees, under a piercing blue sky.”

“A tight shot of another mountain formation, ditto.”

“A phone snapshot of my camera, on my rented tripod, taking that photo, amusingly revealing that this was just the view from the parking lot of the lodge.”

“An impressive display of hundreds of little boxes of raisins, so that arrivals at Fresno International Airport are impressed and humbled by the region’s raisin-production prowess.”

“Andrew Stone, smiling and gesturing delightfully during his Wednesday morning presentation.”

“The title slide from my own talk, entitled ‘Cows Have Had A Positive Impact Upon My Creative Life’.”

I hope you enjoyed this descriptive slideshow. Sorry about the background music. But look, you’re the one who chose to put on that “Ted 2” soundtrack album…not me.

I should stop saying “Real Camera” versus “Phone Camera”

It's A Nice Day For A Light Wedding

Language is tricky. A camera is a camera is a camera. Sometimes I need to clarify that I’m referring to a traditional device and not a hardware feature on a phone. One answer is to refer to such things as a “real” camera, and yes, please, include the quotes Mr./Ms. Editor.

I won’t do that any more, even if I’d done it half-jokingly in the past. Last night I was at the LA County Museum of Art and happened across a couple getting professional photos taken in their wedding clothes. I was spending the afternoon in tourist mode so of course I had my full Urban Guerrilla camera on a sling, and two lenses. I wound up using the iPhone 6s Plus for this instead.

This photo is about 90% as the iPhone shot it. I did push some sliders around in Lightroom. A hardware generation or two ago, I’d be doing that to rescue the photo. Here, I was just improving it adjusting it to my taste, as I do with the stuff I shoot with my Olympus E-M1.

I’ve been deep-testing the cameras of the iPhone and the new Nexus phones. Modern phone camera photo quality is excellent across the board in flagship-class devices. Now, “it’s a good camera” means it <em>handles</em> extremely well, and (like my Olympus) acts as an extension of my brain’s visual center.

There were a couple of practical (boring) reasons why I used the iPhone instead of the Olympus. Yes, one of them was that I knew it’d make a cool demo photo for my Sun-Times review. Another: I hoped that if I used the iPhone’s burst mode, I might get lucky and catch a frame illuminated by the photographer’s flash.

But just as important is the fact that I trust the iPhone. If I have a tiny window in which to get the shot, I know that the iPhone will come up with a halfway decent photo. (So long as the subject isn’t moving. The iPhone loooovvveeessss slow shutter speeds.)

At my skill level, getting a good photo with the E-M1 in a lighting situation I’ve rarely had to deal with requires some trial and error. A woman in white in front of 200 densely-packed streetlamps at night certainly qualifies.

Sometimes, I even just want a snapshot. I enjoy the immersive creative nature of photography but the risk is that I go into my Photo Trance and I’m no longer really there. In this case, it was the end of a long and fun day, my brain was in “dinner and bed” mode, and I no longer had enough mental bandwidth for immersive photography. I was in “push a button and get a photo” mode.

This year, time and time again, I found myself treating a phone in my pocket as a “second camera”…part of my arsenal, alongside the Olympus on my shoulder, to be used when it felt to me like the more appropriate camera for the situation.

A camera is much more than a good picture. A camera is how you take that picture. Today, a phone camera is manifestly a “real” camera.

Angel on my Shoulder

Angel On My Shoulder

Through the entrance; approach the grand staircase; proceed instead through the little hallway that runs alongside it on the right; enter the big medieval church-like exhibit space; exit immediately to the right; go through hallway of additional medieval art; straight past the silver saddle in the glass case and Gallery 700 (the Charles Engelhard Court of the American Wing) is just past the double glass doors.

Yup, I’ve now been here so many times I know the way by memory. The Met sculpture garden of 19th and early 20th century American works is slowly closing in on the Boston Public Library as my favorite photo spot.

It has that same sort of appeal for me as a photographer. The more times I visit it, the better I know the place and where to look for photos. I think I build a map of the space that informs me on a subconscious level as a walk around with my camera. If I were a better photographer, I might have spotted this shot on my first visit, instead of here on my…tenth? Well, it’s been a lot of visits and I’m neither the photo geek nor the guy interested in lovely art is anywhere near tired. I’m so lucky to be able to sneak up here during so many of my visits to the city. It’s become my default place to go when I’ve got a couple of hours free and no time to make plans to see something new.

Oh, and there’s another advantage to familiarity and repeat visits: I remember the shots I screwed up the last time. It’s too bad I can’t arrange a do-over on some of the photos I shot in Beijing!

Select All-Copy-Paste, the Hard Way

Click-Option-Drag

Snapped this shot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday.

“Watching someone who’s good at something, doing that thing”: Whether it’s on TV or happening right in front of you, it’s never less than 100% enthralling.

She’s clearly not a hobbyist. I wonder if she prepared her canvas beforehand with layout lines. Because if she’s duplication the composition this precisely by eye…well! That’d be even more amazing.

Continue reading “Select All-Copy-Paste, the Hard Way”

The Tweaker

Chad Johnson, aka OMGChad, at PAX east. Bon vivant and all-around good egg.
Chad Johnson, aka OMGChad, at PAX east. Bon vivant and all-around good egg.

 

Oh, whoops: by “Tweaker” I’m referring to me, not to the subject of this photo (Chad Johnson, aka OMGChad, a fab former producer at TWiT who’s now off on his own and building his own business hosting his own YouTube channel).

And I don’t mean “tweaking” in the sense of being hopped up on meth. I mean “obsessively making minute adjustments, forever.”

Perhaps I could have saved some trouble by choosing a different title for this photo.

I just wanted to get at the fact that the PAX East photos I’ve been posting to Flickr are my first full project since switching from Aperture to Lightroom. It’s clear that Aperture did not, in fact, just off to the store to get a pack of cigarettes and that it’s never, ever coming back and I wonder if it ever really loved us, anyway?

Well, whatever: Apple’s not going to support my favorite photo library/editing app any more. I’m going to have to convert my Aperture instincts to Lightroom instincts at some point…I guess I might as well get started now.

It’s a frustrating and universal experience. You build more equity with an app or an OS the longer you use it. At this point I am really, really good at walking (no joke; I can walk across almost any surface without falling over…even if I’m carrying lots of stuff at the same time). It sucks to have to throw all of that away and switch to crawling.

Learning a photo editor isn’t the same as learning to run away from predators. You do get to carry over some basic understandings of how color and light work and an inarticulable personal definition of what constitutes a photo that “looks right.”

But this photo took me wayyyy longer to process that it would have in Aperture. It was shot in the press room, with that terrible institutional overhead lighting that knows only hatred and lives only to create unflattering skin tones. Just nudging the White Balance and Tint sliders won’t do.

It’s kind of a nice portrait and I wanted to get a copy to Chad before I forgot about it. I’ve now had a few more days with Lightroom and a little more time to focus, and this second version is way better. There’s more depth to the skin tones and Chad’s plumage is closer to its natural (or should I say “natural”?) red.

Getting back to “personal definitions of what looks right.” I feel like I screw up photos like this one by trying to make terrible overhead institutional lighting look like terrific balanced studio lighting. I’ll get better results by trying to make it look like good institutional lighting…or, as if it was shot with a camera that costs three times as much and is way better at solving white balance problems automatically.

Life is a learning process. I even post photos differently. I used to come home from an event like PAX or Boston Comic-Con and spend two or three weeks culling hundreds and hundreds of photos down to 80 or 90, editing and captioning each, and then posting a huge album all at once. Now, I use the brick-by-brick approach of posting a photo a day until I think I’m done. I like the pace, I like the ability to treat each photo like its own special project, and I like the fact that each photo typically gets thousands of views instead of just a few hundred. I also seem to think that 30 photos tell the story just fine, whereas when I did this the old way going from a shortlist of 110 photos to 83 final selections felt painful.

Well, so long Aperture. You were a great app with lots of life left in you and I’m sorry that Apple abandoned you for something younger and mobile-focused.

Super (-ish) Moon

I shot the supermoon tonight in my backyard. If the Moon is going to be accommodating enough to get a little bit closer to my camera, then I really shouldn’t look a gift satellite in the mouth, should I?

I find that the Moon is a most agreeable subject. It’s much more patient with the hobbyist photographer than the Blue Angels. The Moon has places to go, yes…but it’s in no hurry to get there and it’s willing to indulge the local paparazzi.

My consumer zoom tops out at a sensible 200mm which is fine if your subject is somewhat nearer than 240,000 miles from the focal plane but less than optimal if you want to take a photo of anything orbiting the planet. I don’t need an ultratelephoto lens (or a telescope with a camera adapter). I only want one. And I only want one a couple of times a year…like right now!

Amazon’s drone-delivery system (if real) is brilliant. I’m in my backyard and seeing this little white circle in my viewfinder. I could unpocket my phone, tap a few buttons, and then a half an hour later…RZZZZZZZZZZZZ! A quartet of quadrocopters with a net slung between them drops a Celestron gently onto the grass, next to my tripod. That’s the way to do it! Lock me into the sale at the moment of need, before I realize that this is a silly impulse and an unnecessary expenditure.

I’ve never owned a telescope. I suppose that these days, we use better technology for looking at the heavens: the Internet. Awesome (in the literal sense) collections of imagery collected by the latest generation of spacecraft observatories are right there to be found. Much of it is nicely collected in apps and services, like Google Sky.

I’m sure that I’m not getting the same visceral excitement that I’d experience by peeping at this stuff through an optical viewfinder. But I must swallow my pride and confess that the Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer space telescopes et al (and the people who click the buttons) are way better at finding and photographing interesting things up there than I am.

(It also doesn’t involve freezing one’s butt off when a comet is passing by at an awkward time of the year.)

Besides, the Moon isn’t like the Space Shuttle. There are a million photos of Endeavour, but only a few that capture the orbiter the way I saw it, conveying the emotions that I felt when seeing it. The Moon just hangs there, like the Mona Lisa. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to think of something new to do with the thing.

I still have “Milky Way galaxy” on my photographic bucket list, though. It’s a tough problem to solve. I’d need to go somewhere with no light pollution. That’s not a big problem. I’m actually intimidated by being interrupted by angry people with guns and flashlights wondering what the hell I’m doing in the middle of their field. One day, maybe, I’ll find an astronomy group and make a trek out on a good night. Is it BYOB, or do they have a cooler with an honor bar?

Buds

“Hey, take our picture!”

It was about 10:30 at night on a Friday, and I was taking pictures of the fountain outside the Park Street MBTA station. Oh, what a crummy, crappy scene! A poorly-lit, dark bronze fountain, with a brightly-illuminated, gilded State House in the background. Yes, I was trying to see how well this camera works in a despicable worst-case scenario. The lighting is almost beyond the limitations of sensor technology in general.

So why shoot it? Well, I chose this as a Kobayashi Maru test. I didn’t expect the Olympus to make a good photo out of this scene; I was curious to find out how well it would perform in failure. Would it cry?

These two gentlemen called out from the sidewalk behind me. When strangers ask you to take their photo and it’s late on a Friday night, it’s clearly a Yellow Alert situation. Eventually, I was able to relax and conclude that they were just two sober, affable men having a lovely evening out, but only after I carefully considered alternate theories such as “they’re drunks and capable of damned near anything” and “they’re going to make a grab for my camera.”

(The worst-case scenario would have been “They’re filming some sort of reality show.” “Take my wallet and my camera,” I would say, thrusting these at the men. “Just please don’t try to draw me into your fake argument about how accurate a stripper’s Swedish Chef costume must be before it, quote, ‘stops being sexy’.”)

I should point out that they didn’t recognize me from my writings or podcasts or anything. They didn’t ask me to send them a copy of the photo, nor did they ask for any information from me which they could use to find this photo on Flickr or whatever.

They were just out and having a great time together. They seemed to simply like the idea of a photo of this Great Time existing in the aether somewhere.

I like that a whole lot. I hope they find this photo.

Photo notes: not a bad shot. Remember that low-light photos are often deceptive. There was a lot less light in the scene than it appears. Really, just some path lighting a dozen yards away. No direct lighting of any kind. Plus, I was still a little bit wary of the whole situation, so I didn’t bother to readjust my settings. The camera was still set to underexpose by a full stop.

I spent months choosing this camera. I imagine that the Nikon D7100 (a conventional “bigass SLR” with a large. DX-format image sensor; it was one of my finalists) could have shot this with less ISO noise. But: this scene is the sort of hopeless shooting situation in which only a full-frame camera (like the Canon 5D III or the Nikon D800) can deliver a truly clean image.

“A camera that works great in every shooting situation” isn’t within reach of the average consumer. That’s the definition of a pro camera. You can only have one of those if money and size are truly no object. Would I love to own a camera that can take clean photos late at night even when there’s no direct lighting? You betcha. Would I be willing to spend about $5000 for one? Holy cats, no. A $5000 camera is so laughably out of my sphere of reality that I don’t even need to come up with a colorful response to the “Am I also willing to lug around a camera and lens that doesn’t fit in any of my day-to-day bags?” question.

There’s a “Zeno’s Paradox” sort of thing in effect when you’re hunting for the best camera, anyway. We chase after “perfection, every time” even though that’s just not in the cards. Any camera (even the one in a cheap phone) can take great photos in 50% of all possible photographic scenarios. Want to try to make it to the 100% mark? A good point-and-shoot camera works great 75% of the time. A consumer-level SLR: 87% of the time. Enthusiast-level: 94%. Pro: 98%. Every level up closes half of the remaining gap.

But the gap is getting smaller each time, and each time, the cost of the hardware at the next level doubles. Whatever shooting scenarios are in that 4%, they’d better be pretty damned important to justify thousands of dollars in additional cost. And no matter how much money you throw at the problem, you’ll never get to 100%, will you? You still need to have the wits to ask these two guys to move a few steps and turn around, to face a streetlamp.

This shot does spotlight one annoyance of the E-M1: no built-in flash. It comes with a tiny external flash unit that slides into the camera’s flash shoe and accessory port. But you can’t quickly slide it on and go, and of course you need to have remembered to bring it with you in the first place. If I’d already had it on the camera, I certainly would have used it here. This is the one thing about the E-M1 that makes me long for my little Panasonic.

Final note: some day I should try to whack up the courage to take pictures of people on the street. I’m a big fan of Brandon Stanton’s “Humans Of New York” photo project. He isn’t sneaky or creepy. He approaches people and asks. He engages with them. And he takes a rather nifty portrait that any of these folks would be very grateful to have.

What guts! I’m terrified that I’ll approach, and ask, and be confronted with a sensible question that I can’t answer, like “How do I know that you’re not some creep who’ll take this photo and use it for God-knows what?” I suppose one solution is to print up Moo cards with the URL of my Flickr feed. Then they’d think “He might be a creep, but at least he’s a creep who planned ahead. And who has a funny squirrel photo on his card.”

This is why I love shooting cosplayers at cons; they’re keen to be photographed and I know they’re receptive to the request.

I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable as one of those jackasses who feel as though their pursuit of Art gives them license to jeopardize someone’s feelings of privacy and safety. I saw the gallery of one proud street photographer that included a shot of a woman blocking her face from the camera’s view. Christ, man. Brandon’s project reminds me that there’s a way to do street portraits that ends positively for everybody.

I realize that this is a kind of photography that I admire but don’t do because I can’t imagine how one would go about it and I’m a little scared to try it. That’s usually a good reason to learn anything.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Retina on Retina

Screenshot of Aperture on Retina Mac display...you can see me reflected in the doggie's eye.

This mini-review on the Sun-Times site amounts to an outline of the full review I’ll be posting on Monday. It’s the best Mac Apple’s ever made. Which isn’t to say it’s for everyone. And I said in the review that most Mac users don’t care enough about onboard Ethernet and future expandability that it’s a debilitating issue. Which isn’t to say that those shouldn’t be considered faults. But yes, if my editor and I are eager to get something of value up on the site and in print before the week is out, and I try to put everything in 600 words, then this is a review I can stand behind.

Now I’m playing with the new edition of Aperture. This is the sort of app that underscores the real point of the Retina Mac display. The purpose of the 220 ppi screen isn’t to show more pixels. It’s to show more information. Photo work is terrific. Thumbnails are so dense that you feel like you can truly pick out the winners in a sequence of photos without having to maximize each and every one of them individually.

It’s so good that yup, when you do go maximum, it’s immediately clear that the little shadow inside a dog’s eye is actually a self-portrait of the photographer. Click and look closely…you can see my hat and everything.

Anyway. Tune back in on Monday for greater verbosity.

The Mac App Store: Falling In Love Again

BPL Staircase

Y’like that photo? It represents two things: the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library, and the regular renewal of my love for the Mac App Store.

It’s one of those rare scenes where it’s almost impossible not to come away with a great photo. I mean, just look at what’s there. Plus, the balcony that the camera is sitting on is at exactly the same level as the bottom sills of the windows on the other side, and there’s even a seam in the marble that shows you where to center your lens.

The shot and the composition is right there waiting for you but you can make things better with proper technique. I’ve taken this same photo over and over again and I think this version includes pretty much every mix-in ingredient from the sundae bar. The camera was sitting flat on the balcony to eliminate camera shake; I selected an aperture from the lens’ “sweet spot”; I used a super-wide-angle lens to get the whole thing in one shot; I shot on an overcast day so that the west-facing windows didn’t blow out the stairs; I manually selected an exposure point from the midtone range of the scene; I waited until the area was clear of people (or for there to be a person in there standing still and doing something that enhanced the scene); and I shot seven bracketed exposures, which I assembled into an HDR image to get around the limitations of the image sensor.

To summarize: I tried to Ansel Adams my ass off with this one. Gosh!

The HDR image was created by Photomatix by HDRSoft. It’s the go-to app for people who think a High Dynamic Range photo should look like a photograph and not like a frame from a computer-generated short circa 1998.

Generating this image was a needlessly long and complicated process. Oh, the app is easy as pie. It was only complicated because I hadn’t really used the app in ages. I downloaded a fresh copy from HDRSoft and looked in my Mail archive for the license code, but I couldn’t find it. I used their website’s automated thingy to have it re-sent to me, but they didn’t have the code on file and it was a holiday weekend.

So I had to dig through my closet for Lilith 9, my 2008-edition MacBook Pro. After thirty minutes of charging, I booted it up for the first time in a year and a half. I remembered my admin password after seven failed tries and I had to remember how things work in MacOS 10.6. But then it was like I was entering the tomb of The 2009-2011 Version Of Andy Ihnatko. Here, arrayed in the undisturbed air almost as though he had just departed moments ago, were all of the tools and amusements and artifacts that he surrounded himself with in life. For what purpose were they buried with him? History may never know.

Anyway, yes, Photomatix was installed and licensed on this machine. More good news: I could upgrade to the 2012 edition and still use the old app’s registration credentials. I copied over the source images and soon had the merged HDR image that I’d come for.

If I’d acquired Photomatix from the App Store two years ago, I’d have had it up and running on Lilith X after just five minutes of clicking…no registration code required. Every time I encounter into a situation like this, I love, love, love, freaking love the Mac App Store. I want to put five dollars in an envelope and send it to Apple, in the hopes that it might land in the hands of someone who was responsible for making the App Store happen.

The Store is still a source of some worry. Apple is the sole authority on what apps can and can’t run on an iPhone, iPod, or iPad. That rankles, given that an iPad costs as much as a Windows 7 notebook. Shouldn’t I have the right to do whatever the hell I want with a computer I paid $400 to $875 for? The situation is different on MacOS but developers still feel enormous pressure to kowtow to Apple’s rules and seek their approval. The App Store’s where all the money is.

So noted be. But damn, yes, the Store makes life so much easier for every user.

Which is why we sigh and we move on, instead of driving to Cupertino with a trunk full of V for Vendetta masks and a collection of signs that we hope will be amusing enough for people to reshare on their Tumblrs.

The Man Who Shot Superman

The Best You Can Do

The last of my photos from New York Comic-Con are finally up. It took me two months, sure, but do you want them Right Now, or do you want them Done Right?

(Eh? You don’t want them at all?)

(Go to hell.)

New York Comic-Con 2010 – The Costumes

I get truly excited when I know I’m coming to an event or a place with terrific opportunities for picture-taking. It’s like a wonderful scavenger hunt. I know that there are incredible photos hidden somewhere inside this enormous place and I have just three days to find as many of them as I can.

There’s also a serious puzzle-solving component to the adventure and that part of it can deliver as much frustration as pleasure. Some elements were easy: there were going to be lots of colorful people at the event (check) and all of them were going to be perfectly happy to stop for someone with a camera (DOUBLE-check).

Fab! But they’re walking around inside the Javits Center. I’d attended plenty of shows there. Even compared to other convention centers, I knew that this was one dark, dark set of exhibit halls.

So I came to New York with pretty much the whole inventory of photographic armament. I had my D200, the really fast 50mm lens, the plain-jane wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, and an external flash. Clearly I was going to have to rely on a lot of trial and error to get decent results.

Ach. It was kind of even tougher than I had imagined. I’d hoped that I’d figure out the right combination of equipment and settings that would yield clear, sharp, colorful photos with a properly-illuminated subject and background. Instead, I had to file this under the “accept the things that I cannot change” part of that embroidered poem you’ve seen hanging on a wall at your aunt’s house.

Over those three days, I think I tried every trick and combination of settings imaginable. But nothing was really foolproof. Even using rear-curtain sync (a slow shutter gathers a blurry handheld image of the background, while a pop of flash at the very end overlays a sharp exposure of the person in the foreground) didn’t work 100% of the time.

Here’s the solution I came up with to the problem of Ambitious Javits Center Photography. These notes are for my future benefit as much as anybody else’s. Alas, it’s rather boring:

  • You need a real SLR. Cameras with big image sensors can handle high ISOs very well. Almost any pocket camera can barely take a decent photo at 400 ISO.
  • 800 or 1000 ISO seems to be the sweet spot. With my SLR (and most others) that’s enough sensitivity to pull details from the background without introducing so much noise that it starts to get in the way.
  • Simple, direct flash is the only surefire solution. I wanted three things in each image: sharp detail, strong colors, and lots of background detail. It seemed as though I could only have two of them at once. If it isn’t in sharp focus, it isn’t a usable photo. And what’s the point of shooting costume photos with dull color? Sometimes you’ll get lucky and there’s enough light in the background to give you some kind of detail. Or at least enough light that you can salvage it in Photoshop. But in the end, it’s best to simply accept that some venues just aren’t great for photography.
  • Just trust to luck. After assuring myself that there was no one Magic Answer, I settled into a routine of taking two separate shots, with the flash on and off. My camera has a user-programmable function button, which made it easy. I didn’t even have to take the camera away from my face between shots: I just hold down the function button with my ring finger, sight-unseen, to suppress the flash. One of those two shots would come out OK.

So that’s what I wound up with for shooting costumes at the Javits Center. I hope to do better next time. And there’ll definitely be a next time: I had a great weekend at the Con, and much of what I did there was actually job-related.

I did take away two lessons. Next time, I might decide to more or less set up camp in the Javits’ atrium area. It’s loaded with people coming and going and there’s plenty of great light. It sometimes seemed as though everyone you’d ever want to shoot was walking through there at one point or another. All of the photos that made me think “Hey, that one came out great!” were shot outside of the exhibit halls.

And the experience underscored how handy it’d be to own a fast, wide-angle lens. Remember, when I snap the 50mm onto the SLR body, it turns into a telephoto-ish 75mm lens. I tried using it during the first day but I was missing way too many shots because I just couldn’t get my subject into the frame. Digital SLRs are popular enough that prices of nice, fast, 30mm lenses are starting to come way down.

Photoshop Disasters: The Home Game ANSWER!

The line “…I wonder if you can spot it, too” in Saturday’s post was a spontaneous thing but boy, did I enjoy all of the responses. Here’s the original photo again:

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.

I’ll show you the original, untouched imagery. But first, let’s roll through some of the guesses:

  • “The debris in the water looks like dust on the bed of a scanner.” Nope…this was shot digitally. I did momentarily consider erasing all of those little bits, but that would have been overkill.
  • “Is it the unexplained circle of water ripples?” Oddly enough…nope. I myself have been trying to think of why the ripples look a little out-of-place. Maybe the swan entered the water at one angle, and then changed course? Midway through the edit, I thought “Damn…I must have made a clumsy, square selection at some point.” This is why I sometimes find myself returning to the original image to make sure I’m not “fixing” something that’s actually a natural feature.
  • “Oversharpening of the trees?” Nope. Or at least I didn’t give the trees any special attention. I don’t think I applied any sharpening to this image. I might have done it to the whole thing by reflex.
  • “A little quaint for my taste.” Point taken. I think it’s more photographic and stylish than hotel room art, but the image would still be alarmingly appropriate for the title screen of a wedding video. The main focus of my attention was the bridge, which I think is one of the prettiest public structures in Boston. Other shots of the bridge in this series use angles that are more dynamic. I liked that I caught one of the swans just as she was about to jump into the water.
  • “It has to be the light on the left. It looks like it is behind the tree at its base, but the post and light are in front of the tree.” Nope, I didn’t do anything to the trees or the lights on the bridge. I think the trees behind and in front of the light are just sort of compressed together in the image. But yeah, I see what you mean.
  • “My untrained eye keeps coming back to the lights on the bridge. They appear to be lit, even though daylight has arrived.” This was shot at about 6:30 AM. The sun was up but the timer on the lights hadn’t tripped yet. I’m grateful that there’s a little color and texture in the lights.
  • “the bit of sky in the top right hand corner. I keep looking over there and there is nothing to see.” Interesting. That wasn’t the “mistake” I was thinking of but maybe I’ll just see what it looks like with some cloned foliage filling the gap.
  • “Ok, I’ll go with ‘Something seems wrong with the water in the extreme lower left corner, just to the left on the standing bird’s reflection.’ Hard to tell at iPad screen resolution, but the ripple and reflection patterns look like they’ve been modified.” OooOOoooh…very close. I had to look carefully and compare the source to the final photo to check. No, but you’re verrrry close.
  • “Maybe too much cloned tree by the rightmost lamp.” Nope, I didn’t clone any trees.

Nobody got it. One of you would have won the $30 Outback Steak House Gift Card (had I offered one as a prize) for coming closest: Jay Horsley sensed that there was…something…going on with the reflection of one of the two swans.

I actually did two different major edits to this piece. It’s a composite of not one, but three photos.

Firstly, there are two swans in the Public Garden but only one of them is represented in this photo. The other one was minding the nest on the opposite shore of the lagoon. I shot a multiple-image sequence of the swan jumping into the water and paddling off. After Photoshop automatically aligned the two shots I’d selected, it was easy to “paint in” the swan on the shore.

I used the “swan in the water” shot as my main image; it saved me the trouble of removing the woman from the bridge.

Jay’s comment encouraged me to examine the Before and After images side-by-side and see if I should have painted more of the “shore” swan’s reflection into the water. The only thing missing is its head; I think it should be obscured by the ripples of the water. But maybe I’ll play with it some more.

That edit was easy. The tricky one was cleaning up the bridge abutment. “It’s a focal point of the photo and it’s covered in bird s***,” an art critic might say.

I thought that’s what it was, too. But actually, it’s just lime scale seeping through the cracks in the mortar.

“Uh-huh. But it still looks like it’s streaked with gallons and gallons of bird s***.”

Critics!

There was just way, way too much of this stuff to “fix” the stones via the usual Photoshop tricks. So on a later visit to the Public Garden, I shot a closeup of the opposite abutment, which (praise Tarim) was much, much cleaner:

Photo of bridge abutment.

Damn and blast, I didn’t have a copy of the photo with me at the time. I had to guess at the right angle and I wasn’t even close. But it’s a tiny part of the final image so I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I mashed and distorted it until it was the same shape and size as the one covered in bi…in lime scale. Then I used a mask to knock a hole in the master image and lined up the replacement abutment under the hole, flipping between the “Before” and “After” to make sure that the blocks matched the original.

But look what I forgot to do:

Detail of image, showing the "fixed" abutment of the bridge, with the original "messed up" abutment still reflected in the water.

Yup…I forgot to fix the reflection of the original streaked-up abutment.

I was pretty proud of the replacement job (though I think I’ll fine-tune the edges a little) and I stopped working without thinking about how The Thing Wot I Changed had influenced other things in the image. That’s a common mistake. You see it all the time on the “Photoshop Disasters” site. You might have done a great job fixing the whatsit. But before you move on, you need to look back at the original image. Is the whatsit reflected in something else? Does it cast a shadow? Is it supposed to be reflecting light on something else? If so…what color is that light? Do any of these things need to be updated?

Thanks for your comments about the photo. I wasn’t actually fishing for reassurance but hey, who doesn’t like reassurance and encouragement?

Some people like to unwind with a game. I tend to sublimate that kind of adventuring into creativity apps. When I run into a problem, it rarely really frustrates me; I actually enjoy trying to figure out how to get the Babel Fish. I keep getting killed on the “replace the background without leaving a color halo around the foreground figures” level. But I keep at it, or I buy a cheat guide, and I figure out how to beat it. Hoo-rah!

…And then I start getting killed on the “intensify a specific color without compressing the image’s dynamic range” level instead.

Speaking of cheat guides: my pal Lesa Snyder has a new edition of her fab book, “Photoshop CS5: The Missing Manual” It was within reach throughout most of this little job.

I really do use it as a cheat guide. The table of contents doesn’t actually read

  1. Man, Andy…you’re such a dumbass about layer blending
  2. I guess you owe that print service an apology…you’ve had the color management settings set wrong all this time
  3. How on earth did you get through several decades on this planet without ever knowing how the Histogram tool works?
  4. …Or you could fix that sky in about three seconds by doing it the right way, but what the hell do I know, I’m just a Photoshop book

…but it might as well. I have a problem, I open the book, I find the solution.

Photoshop Disasters: The Home Game

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.
A nice little shot of Boston's Public Garden. The Public Garden is a much more quiet and peaceful place before the tourists and bridal parties descend.

I’m a big fan of the Public Garden (the oldest public horticultural garden in the USA) and a few weeks ago I decided to make a special early-AM trip out there to do some Serious Photography.

I got some nice shots. But I haven’t really posted anything on Flickr yet. Why?

Yes, of course: I’ve become a Button Freak. Like Oskar Schindler at the end of the movie, who wandered in a daze, paralyzed by the thoughts of everything else he could have done, I keep looking at these shots and thinking “But there must be a way I can restore the blown-out highlights in that sky.”

(So when do I get my adoring biopic? Well, okay: Schindler had to wait 50 years for his. Plus, he did save a whole lot of people’s lives. I guess I’ll just have to wait my turn.)

There comes a point at which Photoshop, Aperture, and The Ambition To Produce A Lovely Pick-cher become handicaps to the amateur photographer. This shot of the swans — a lovely lesbian couple; you should meet them sometime — is probably my favorite of the series and a case in point. I can’t stop tweaking it. I went from “I like it; I’m going to include it among the 20 I’ll post to Flickr” to “I like it; I’m going to export it from Aperture and edit in Photoshop, for more control” to “I really like it; I think I’ll make an 11×17 print of this”…which ultimately landed me at “If I’m going to be staring at this on my wall for years to come, then this ought to be perfect.

Next stop: bedlam. Now’s a good time to start stowing any personal electronics because we should be landing there shortly.

I thought I was done working on this photo, honestly. But then I spotted a problem…a mistake I made in editing. I wonder if you can spot it, too.

Over-doing Photoshop is like over-doing plastic surgery: you don’t know you’ve gone too far until you’ve gone too far. But unlike Joan Rivers, I can undo the damage I’ve inflicted upon what God created by simply hiding a few adjustment layers.