Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Case for Staying in the Car

We snicker, or shake our heads sadly, at the tourist whose idea of taking in Yosemite is to drive up to Tunnel View, stick the camera out of the window for a moment, then drive off without even getting out of the car. That may be fine, we think, for a casual snapshooting tourist. But our vision of a real landscape or wildlife photographer involves a man/woman encumbered with a healthy dose of L.L. Bean attire, camera equipment in a backpack, sturdy carbon fiber tripod, and chunky hiking boots, stealthily heading up a rugged trail, their mind crammed with knowledge of geomorphology and wildlife habits.

But actually the vehicle is a respected bit of photographic equipment. Ansel bolted a sturdy platform on top of his to achieve a viewpoint with added height. I've often climbed on top of our little Minnie Winnie motor home for the same reason. Perhaps not the same level of results.

In the realm of wildlife photography, a few of my most satisfying results have resulted when not even leaving the driver's seat. The thing is, a vehicle makes a wonderful blind. Critters are used to them. Vehicles can generally be depended upon to stay on the road, and not throw rocks, chase, or otherwise interfere threateningly with their making a living the way humans might.

A few years ago I decided to head out in my pickup on a misty morning. I'd been seeing some deer among the oaks lining the golf course in our community, and I had the idea of an image of trees receding into the mist with some deer sprinkled attractively in the composition. Instead I came upon this pair resting in someone's front yard. I had a 70-300 mm lens on my Nikon D-80. Staying in the truck I was able to back up a bit, then pull forward a bit, to get the composition just right without disturbing the deer. I like the quiet, misty feel of this image, the warmth some of the colors add to the misty day, the way the shapes of the doe's and buck's heads juxtapose just right, and the way he receeds into the mist. I'm sure that if I had left the truck to compose, all I would have seen in the viewfinder would have been oaks and mist.

Yesterday on the way back from errands, my wife and I enjoyed seeing a beautiful egret that has made itself at home fishing the two ponds adjacent to the entrance to our community. At home I put my 300 mm lens on my D300 and headed back to the pond. Thanks to paved parking areas and roads adjacent to the ponds I was able to move slowly around, working the best light, as the egret did his work. After reviewing the first images I realized that the dark background provided by the water was resulting in a bit of overexposure and loss of detail in those bright white feathers. So I backed the exposure compensation down to minus 1. I used the seat back to help steady the camera. The window sill can work also, but as accustomed as this bird is to passing vehicles, I was cautious of being too obviously a human by appearing in the window. Some OK photos resulted - how could they not with such a beautiful creature to work with. But then it raised its wings for balance as it stepped into some deeper water, and my finger thankfully reacted almost without thought.

Prints of my images may be obtained via

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bud's la Salle

Bud's La Salle

My wife and I made the short trip today to Bud's Automotive - dropping off the 10-year-old F150 pickup and picking up our 11-year-old Explorer. Bud has been caring for both as long as we've owned them - about 10 years. I had a discussion a few years ago with our gravel delivery and grading guy about the available options for automotive maintenance in our small northern California Foothill community. His comment was that there were three; "Crazy, Grumpy, and Stupid". Awhile ago we made our move from Crazy to Grumpy, and have never looked back. 

Thing is, he isn't. Or else he has mellowed with age. I think he is close to my antiquity - and in the vicinity of three-score and ten I guess we all finally figure out how to accept what life throws at us and be grateful for it. So we share our thoughts about retirement - he's down to working four days a week, I'm down to about the same. It's kinda good to grow old with your mechanic.

So every few months we make these trips down the windy road to his place, narrow enough at the bridges that you stop at the wide spot to let the other guy through, waving his thanks and hello. Today was another in a long series of clear fall days, with that low warm light. A time of year that brings with it a reminder that all things pass. So I pulled out my G12 for a few snaps. 

Working over those snaps, and dumping them onto a Facebook album, I was reminded of a photo essay I'd done of a vintage car with a wondrous patina that he had pulled into his lot several years ago. Those kind of vehicles, as well as restored versions, tend to show up at his place. Which is why he is the only mechanic to have ever layed hands on my TR6.

Anyhow, the photo essay. I love that format, because it allows one to explore a subject with a series of images that describe it more fully than a single one could. Here 'tis - click the slideshow and then the full screen options - it's just a couple of minutes worth and I think you will enjoy . . .

Prints of my images may be obtained via

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hoard . . . or Treasure?

I'm hesitant to part with stuff. Things that may come in useful sometime, or perhaps create a link with the past - and who I am. I hang onto stuff such as a bin of galvanized pipe fittings. When I try to convince myself it should be recycled I recall that recently I used a short piece with an elbow fitted as a tool to break loose a stubborn fitting on my vintage car. Lumber and plywood cutoffs from past projects, deemed special for some reason, accumulate in garage corners, providing environmentally friendly habitats for black widow spiders.

I don't think of myself as a hoarder because occasionally the desire for order counterbalances the need to hang onto stuff. In the past the solution to the accumulation was to buy more plastic bins and build more storage shelves. Since there was no more space for additional shelves, and stuff was beginning to spill out onto the floor, it was time for a more creative solution. I needed more space for fun stuff like projects on my TR6. Time to go through those bins, sort, and toss.

Thus the last couple of weeks have seen dozens of plastic bins hauled out to the driveway. Trash and treasures appeared as I dug to the bottom of every one. Among the treasures was a beat up shoebox filled with aluminum Kodak 35-mm film cans. In each can was a tightly coiled roll of 35mm negatives, representing the early part of my years at San Rafael High School, when I had joined the camera club, and real instruction was beginning to feed what would be my lifelong love of photography. Each can had a numbered blue label. Somewhere, I thought, must be the key. And sure enough, a few days later it turned up buried in yet another bin. Oh, the joy.

Camera Club outing, Point Reyes, 1954

Scanning these long-coiled negatives will likely require mounting them in glass carriers, but I'm looking forward to revealing the treasures - family trips, camera club outings, even some 16-mm photos taken in school with a little "spy" camera.

The wrap up from all of this? I guess, don't worry about being a hoarder, especially if it includes family memorabilia. These are things that remind us who we are. And those plastic bins do a great job of keeping the stuff, useless and otherwise, safe from moisture, dirt, and rodents.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Polarizing Filter - A Photographer's Magic Wand

That title sounds like one of those little amateur photography pamphlets Kodak published in the 1950's. By the time I was 15 I had acquired several of the pamphlets, as well as my Dad's Argus C-3. In 1956 my folks were outfitting us for a three-month, cross-country trip in our travel trailer. For that trip, in addition to the camera and a couple dozen rolls of Kodachrome, I had received a pair of clip-on, polarizing sunglasses. To me they were magical, the way the sky darkened and lightened, and colors became richer as I tilted my head this way and that as we headed east through the pines of the Sierra Nevada on Highway 40 over Donner Pass.

My Dad's 1952 Plymouth and 18-foot Mainliner trailer

From those Kodak pamphlets I learned the exposures to use for night scenes of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. I also learned that a polarizing filter can be used to darken the sky, or to reduce reflections from most surfaces. 

The polarizing filter is still a magical tool, one of the few filters I still use. Digital photography has other ways of obtaining the effects once provided by the colored filters used for black and white photography, and the color correcting filters used with color slide film. But a polarizer is still always with me when I am photographing, since it can produce effects that no in-camera-processing or post-processing can achieve.

Polarized light is magical. Bees even use it to navigate, according to what I read. Normally light waves vibrate in all directions. But some of the blue light from the sky vibrates in only one direction - it has become polarized as it has reflected off of particles in the atmosphere. Or something like that. Light also becomes polarized when it reflects from a non-metallic surface. Why not from a metallic surface? I really don't know. But photographers can use this phenomena to bend light to their will. 

A polarizer can prevent polarized light from reaching the sensor. Thus polarized skylight darkens to become a deeper blue, and glare from surfaces is pretty much eliminated. The glare reduction thing is pretty useful when photographing foliage in sunlight. Leaves look a richer green, and the color of flowers is deepened. In addition to darkening blue skies and cutting glare, polarizers can also reduce the effect of distant haze.

The glare-reducing effect can be striking in the fall. Here's a photo of the two maples that have grown to frame our garden gate. The sun is coming toward the camera from the left, and there is a lot of glare from the leaves:

Without polarizing filter

In the photo below I've added a polarizing filter, and rotated it until the color from the leaves appeared richest.

With polarizing filter

In addition to the deeper color of the leaves, the sky has also become darker. And there is another useful effect which is a bit more subtle. Notice that there is a bit more detail in the fence.If desired, there is enough detail there now that it could be enhanced a bit by post-processing. (Both of these photos are JPEGS straight out of my Nikon D300.) The reason for the increased shadow detail is that by cutting glare, the highlights in the scene have been darkened, and the overall contrast has been reduced, allowing an exposure that provides just a bit more light from those shadows.

If you don't have a polarizer, then get one. I use them even on point-and-shoots that don't mount filters by holding it in front of the lens, after first noting the orientation that gives the best effect. So get one and play with it. I'll bet you will have as much fun as I did with those clip-on sunglasses.

Some links for more reading about polarizers and polarized light:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Little Christmas Tree

A true tale for Grandchildren and Grandparents - from Christmas 2001

Once upon a time - well, actually about the third week of December in 2001 - Grandma and Grandpa were talking about Christmas, and Grandma said to Grandpa, "When shall we get a Christmas tree?" Here it was just a few days before Christmas, and there was no Christmas tree in their house. "Let's go down to the Christmas tree farm on Saturday morning and cut one," suggested Grandpa. "Do you think we should wait that long?" asked Grandma. They decided that even though it would be just a couple of days until Christmas, that would be OK, since the Christmas tree farm had the nicest, freshest, Christmas trees. But Grandma asked Grandpa if the weather would be OK. The weather had been getting ready for Christmas, too, you see. Some days were sunny and cool, but other days were windy, cloudy, and rainy. A day like that would not be good for walking through the forest of trees at the Christmas tree farm, looking for just the right tree to cut and take home. Grandpa thought about lying on his belly under a tree, with cold water dripping on the back of his neck while trying to push the saw back and forth. Grandpa said to Grandma, "I think the weather will be OK on Saturday".

But when Grandma and Grandpa got out of bed on Saturday morning the weather was not OK. It was dark, stormy, and rainy. Grandma said, "I need to go shop for more presents for our Grandchildren." Grandpa, who had been having trouble walking through their little house for the last few days because of all the presents already purchased for Grandchildren, just said, "OK, I'll take care of the tree".

So Grandma got into her car to drive the twisty road through the canyon and across the river to town to find more presents for grandchildren. Grandpa got into his pickup to drive the short distance to the Christmas tree farm. Even though it was raining he was OK with going to the Christmas tree farm, because they might have hot apple cider there, and besides, he got the best deal anyway because he didn't have to drive the twisty wet road to town where there would be lots of other people driving around trying to buy presents for Grandchildren. He even remembered that Grandma had reminded him to find a Christmas tree that was not too big - it should be just the right size. But when Grandpa got to the Christmas tree farm the gate was closed. And there in the rain was a sign, painted with a pink spray can, that said, "CLOSED FOR THE SEASON".

So Grandpa thought, "OK, I'll just drive a few miles up the road to the lumberyard. They will have Christmas trees for sale there that have already been cut, and I won't have to drive through the canyon to town where so many people are driving around looking or presents for Grandchildren. But at the lumberyard all of the Christmas trees had already been sold. So Grandpa thought, "OK, I'll just keep driving the few more miles to Georgetown. I'm already halfway there, and even though it is a small town, they will still have Christmas trees, and besides there won't be lots of people driving around looking for presents.

So Grandpa drove his pickup through the rain and the forest to Georgetown. The little town was all ready for Christmas. There were bright bows and garlands on the porch railings in front of all the fine old buildings. There was even a huge Christmas tree with lights set up right in the middle of the town's main street. But there were no Christmas trees for sale, because everyone in Georgetown had already cut their trees in the forest, taken them home, and decorated them.

So Grandpa drove back down through the forest in the rain. He drove past the lumberyard where all the Christmas trees had already been sold. He thought, "Fine, now I will have to drive the twisty road through the canyon to the big store in town where everyone is driving around looking for presents for Grandchildren."

Inside the big store Grandpa walked through the aisles crowded with shoppers.  In the garden center Grandpa finally found a few left over Christmas trees. He smiled, thinking he would find a tree just the right size to finally take home and then he could have lunch and a nap. But the smile went away when he saw that the trees were locked inside a cage-like enclosure, and were not for sale. A saleslady told Grandpa that was because everyone already had their trees, and Grandpa should have shopped sooner. But maybe, she said, the trees would be put out in front of the store marked down for late shoppers.

Grandpa was walking sadly through the store, thinking he would not want to come back later, when he saw Grandma among the crowd of shoppers. He could tell it was Grandma because she was pushing three or four big red shopping carts full of presents for Grandchildren. Grandpa told her the sad story of the failed Christmas tree hunt. They talked about what to do, and decided maybe they didn't even need a Christmas tree this year. No one was coming to their house, since they were going to Reno to see their Grandchildren. Then Grandpa wouldn't have to carry the big boxes of christmas tree stuff up and down the stairs, and besides, he had just finished putting all the stuff away from last Christmas a few weeks ago, and why should they be slaves to tradition anyhow.

So they both drove home in the rain over the twisty road, put their toes up, and rested their eyes for a while in front of the cozy fire, and thought they had put the matter of a Christmas tree to rest also. But later on, when the day was turning into evening, Grandpa realized he was feeling a little bit down. And Grandpa looked at Grandma, and saw that she wasn't all that happy either. They talked about what was wrong - why shouldn't they be happy, since they knew they would soon enjoy being with their Grandchildren. That's when they realized that they needed to have a Christmas tree. Maybe the people at the big store had taken the trees from the locked cage and set them outside for sale. Would any be left?

Grandma and Grandpa got their coats and drove back in the dark through the canyon on the twisty road to town. And there, in the shadows in front of locked doors of the Garden Center of the big store, Grandma spotted two Christmas trees, and a sign that read, "FREE TREES". One of the trees was just the right size. The other was very small, and had a kind of funny shape. Grandma and Grandpa were pleased to have finally found a Christmas tree that was just the right size, and were getting ready to take it home, and leave the funny little tree for someone else. But then they thought, "Would any,one else want the little tree, or would it be left there alone in the rain and the dark?" Just then a puff of wind came around the corner looking for something to do and knocked the "FREE TREES" sign over - SPLAT! - right on its face.

Grandma and Grandpa looked at each other, smiled, and put the little Christmas tree into the truck and took it home along with the one that was just the right size. Both trees were decorated with lights and ornaments and strings of popcorn and cranberrries, but the little Christmas tree was set in the place of honor on top of the trunk in front of the big window. And Grandma and Grandpa put their toes up in front of the cozy fire, while the rain splashed outside on the windows, and smiled some more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Going Poster

I visited the Graegle area of Plumas County in Northern California this weekend. The excuse for this adventure was the great weather, an opportunity to photograph fall color, and mainly an assignment to photograph a fly fisherman for a possible cover of the 2012 edition of the Plumas County Visitor's Guide. I've had some great adventures doing covers for previous years issues.

After the morning shoot I stopped by at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola. Besides being fun for anyone who gets excited about trains (and who doesn't), there is lots to photograph. There is color, texture and pattern to exercise the photographic vision, and it is so wild that one is tempted to let go and simply have fun with it all. Which is what I did, both while photographing, then afterwards at the computer

What's more fun than a colorful caboose? The photo below is pretty much right out of the camera. Well, it is a stitched panorama. Since I was too lazy to change to my super wide lens I took a photo of the top half and merged it in Photoshop with the bottom half photo.  
Not a bad image, and with a fair amount of impact. But wait, there's more . . .
The fun begins with some over-the-top High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing. This was possible because I had taken three images at one-stop exposure intervals, keeping the aperture constant and varying the shutter speed. My camera, a Nikon D300, shoots bursts at about 6 frames a second, allowing this to be done handheld maintaining the images in good enough alignment that the software can merge them.

 I have two options for HDR processing. An old standard is Photomatix Pro. It has lots of control options, which if applied carelessly can lead to an exaggerated, I.e., unreal look. Kind of like a Thomas Kinkade painting, light reaches deep into shadows while still magically revealing texture detail. The other option is the HDR tool in Photoshop, where a more acceptably photographic look results from the default options. I went the Photomatix Kinkade route.

Then back into Lightroom for more fun, where the Vibrance and Clarity sliders got cranked all the way up to "11" - and beyond. Lastly into Photoshop CS5, for a strong dose of Filter>Artistic>Poster Edges.
You'll find more of the results of my railyard and post-processing adventure (including the reputed world's largest diesel locomotive, The Centennial, on my web site, Tony's Vision

Not satiated with color at the railroad museum, I headed north into the pines, aspens, oaks, and big leaf maples along the Beckworth-Genesee Road. You'll find some fall foliage shots in the Awesome Autumn section of the Plumas County web site.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Framed - The Print

I've found it easy lately to procrastinate making prints, matting, and framing them. After all, photos look pretty good on a computer monitor. Sharing them via email, Facebook, photo sharing sites like Phanfare is quick and easy. Sometimes people even "Like" them. And then there is the cost of printing them. A fine ink-jet printer makes really great prints. But they don't leave much change out of $1,000, and that's just the start what with replenishing the inks. Then, finally, my printer head had become clogged, likely from idleness.

But a well made print, matted and framed and displayed with good light, is really the ultimate expression of a photograph. It becomes a piece of art to enjoy living with. So when a lab (Aspen Creek Photo) offered a sale on 20X30 prints and I did the math comparing the cost of a new printer and inks versus lab prints, I sent one off. I also dug out a print of a Galen Rowell photograph that we had purchased years ago, but never managed to mat and frame because of its large size, and a beautiful print of a pair of elephants photographed in Botswana by Gabriel Suarez.

Aaron Brothers had a sale last week on very nicely made 27X40 frames. A bit of effort in mat-cutting and voila - a new look for our living room and a set of fine photographs we will enjoy living with for a while.

  • 20X30 Print from Aspen Creek: $30
  • 27X40 solid wood frame with glass (Aaron Bros. two-for-one sale: $30
  • Acid-free mat board: $14 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Photographic Haiku

A sweet warm rain brought out that neat smell of wet pavement as I picked up some ribs at the local grocery this evening. Back home in the garden my little Canon G12 did what I asked to help express a bit of how it felt. It ain't the quickest camera in the closet, but I think the only one with both macro and gentle enough flash to capture this image.

Sometimes the only thing that will do the job is the big, fast, DSLR with its range of lenses. But more and more, I'm finding that a high-end little camera, in my case the Canon G9 and lately the G12, does the job of the "diary" shots, as well as the occasional artful image. Because its handy and ready to go, images happen that would not otherwise.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Here I am with an old camera crammed against my face again. Except this one, instead of squashing my nose, gets plastered against my forehead when in shooting position, the viewfinder being near the bottom of the camera instead of the conventional location on top. And that's not all that is different about this 1940's camera. As you can see, there are three lenses staring out of the front. The middle one is the other end of the viewfinder. The other two are what put the pair of images on the film. A pair? Yep. When those images are viewed together, the slightly different perspective produced by each is merged by the brain to produce a three-dimensional effect. We've all seen 3D - whether one's first experience was the movie Avatar, or perhaps a few decades earlier when you picked up a Viewmaster for the first time, it is a "Wow!" experience.

Somewhere along the line I've acquired a vintage stereoscope, a viewer for 3-1/2-inch by 7-inch stereo cards, and a couple of boxes of stereocards, or stereograms. The cards were made by the Underwood and underwood and Keystone View photography companies in the late 1800's and early 1900's, and show postcard views of landmarks and landscapes, as well as interesting views of agricultural and industrial activities, including silk spinning, hide tanning, plantation farming, and mining. These, as well as a big collection of Viewmaster reels, are a delight to view for their vintage and historical charm and interest, as well as the stereo depth.

I've fiddled with stereo photography from early on, with a single camera mounted on a homemade slide. Using a tripod, two photos were taken, using the slide to keep the camera parallel and to precisely measure the lateral distance between the shots. Somewhere i had read that the separation between the two camera positions should be 1/40 of the distance to the subject, so I made a scale on the oak slide rail i'd constructed in my grandfather's workshop. Later on I mounted two 35 mm cameras - Nikkormats - on a platform and managed to construct a cable release adapter I am still quite proud of that would fire both shutters simultaneously. The resulting pairs of images I processed and printed in my darkroom, and mounted on cardboard or mattboard to view with a stereoscope.

These periodic episodes were short-lasting, and in retrospect it seems I was most interested in solving a problem, and construction the equipment needed for the solution, than in actually carrying out any long term stereo photo project. But some fine shots did result. The early ones show views of the town of Novato, California, as it looked in the 1950's. Later my efforts resulted in some fun snapshots of my family in the late 1960's and early 1970's. But in the end the photographic tools I had then were too cumbersome and fiddly to sustain enthusiasm for long.

Ha - so what now - here I have a cumbersone and fiddly stereo camera, the Stereo Realist, this one probably manufactured in the late 1940's Fiddly? Well, here is how the process goes for taking a photograph.. Compare to your current nifty digital point-and-shoot:

It is quite a trip to use. Wind the film with one of the knobs, after first pressing the release button. Cock the shutter with that lever under the center (viewfinder) lens, set the shutter speed (1 sec to 1/300 sec) with the dial around the center lens (no built-in exposure meter, so I use the "sunny 16" rule, and it's various corollaries or one of my collection of vintage meters), set the synchronized aperture (max f3.5) with the dial around the lens on the left, focus using the split-image rangefinder by turning the knob on the hidden under my right index finger. (it works, but it is best to simply use a small aperture and the hyperfocal distance scale handily printed under the flip-up lens cover), then frame thru the viewfinder, the window of which is on the bottom of the back of the camera, so you press the camera against your forehead to steady it. Snap the shutter. 

Here is a sample stereo card made with images photographed with the camera:

There is an opportunity with this camera is to produce some stereo cards showing local landmarks and scenes, and while emulating the photographic style of the vintage cards, at the same time provide a record of what common scenes in our local towns, cities, parks, etc., look at this time. We'll see.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's All About The Journey

Collecting vintage camera gear is a great way to re-trace your own photographic history. It helps to be at least 50 years old. This puts your experience at least back in the day of some fine film cameras. Even better if you are 70. In that case, your first experience with a 35mm might have been when your Dad handed over his Argus C-3, like mine did, when I was a sophomore in high school.

Yes, I know it's all about the image, but you have to admit that tools have their influence. The Argus, like all 35mm camera's at that time, was a rangefinder camera. To frame and compose, you peered through a viewfinder that presented you with a view of that part of the world that would be captured on the film. A couple of other windows on the front of the camera, with the help of a couple of mirrors, superimposed a bit of two views. Lining up the two images (in the case of the C-3, by turning that big wheel with the distance markings on it) focused the lens at the proper distance. As you learned to use the camera, you realized that getting the focus right on was important, especially when up fairly close, as for a head-and-shoulders portrait, and especially when using a large aperture (small f-number).

But since you didn't actually see a real representation of the image that would land on the film, you couldn't visualize through the viewfinder what was going to be in focus versus what was not, i.e., the depth-of-field. So when, thanks to my high school camera club advisor, I got my hands on the Exakta series of cameras, the first single-lens-reflexes (SLRs), I was enthralled with the ground-glass image transmitted right through the lens via a mirror and prism. Seeing those shimmering, out-of-focus highlights had a great effect on my photographic vision.

So, yes, I know that the image is what counts, but the tools have a large influence on it. Perhaps that is why I am enjoying this current obsession of collecting some of the hardware milestones from my photographic journey. Or perhaps, as my wife explains her love of jewelry, which had heretofore been incomprehensible to me; "It just makes me feel happy". OK - I get it.

A Note on Kodachrome
This belongs here because the camera above arrived with an exposed roll of Kodachrome just a few days after the last photo lab stopped processing that film. The images on the roll, which might have told a bit about the history of this camera and its owner, will thus remain never to be seen. (note to self - are the digital images I am making now be visible to my family in 30 years? Ten?).

When I first photographed with Kodachrome, that would be about 1955, the film speed was 12. There's technology that will affect your realized vision!