Archive for April, 2009

Panoramas

Thursday, April 30th, 2009
Panoramas

One of the things I have been working on during my residency is capturing panorama images.  As much as I would love to capture panoramas with a Fuji 6×17 camera, I am not lucky enough to own one.  But, modern digital tools allow just about anyone to capture high resolution, large panoramas that could render exceptionally large prints.  So, I thought I would take a moment today to talk about creating them.

There are some basic fundamentals to follow in-camera when creating panoramic photos.  First, you need to have a sturdy tripod – this is key.  It will provide the stability you need for a clear image and increase your chances of lining up each frame correctly. 

Second, there are some certain camera settings to use.  Once you determine the exposure of the desired scene, set that exposure manually.  If you use aperture priority, it will change the exposure as you capture each frame of the panorama.  Shoot in RAW, of course, for the highest detail and data capture.  If you have a grid you can turn on inside your viewfinder, like the Nikon D300 has, then use it — it will help you to align your images as you capture each frame.  Also, use your mirror lockup and a shutter cable release to ensure best stability.  If a cable release is not available, use your camera’s timer. 

Third, choose a composition that will give bookends or an anchor to the image.  Panoramas that are merely a cross-section of a scene do not provide compelling images.  Also, as you are photographing the scene, make sure that each panel overlaps at least 50%.  There really is no rule of thumb as to how many images are required for a panoramic photo – how ever many are necessary to capture the scene you want.  When selecting a scene, make sure to be mindful of frames that overlap where movement might occur, like moving water.  Not aligning those frames correctly might cause problems during the stiching process. 

Finally, you need a software to do the hard work for you in stitching these images together.  Adobe Photoshop CS4 has a Merge function that does a suberb job in stitching together images that CS2 was not cable of doing.  But you do not need to spend the $700+ required to obtain that software if you don’t already have it.  (However, you can download for free a 30-day trial of Photoshop CS4 Extended.)  Panorama Maker 4 (or Pro) is a superb software that does just as good of a job as CS4 in stitching photos, and you can download it from ArcSoft for only $79.99.

You will not see any more posts from me until Sunday, as I am heading out to backpack in the Wilderness area of the park, starting in the Conata Basin and going through the Deer Haven area.  I may go straight through to the Sage Creek Campground or I may do a loop.  I will go where the photos take me.  When I return on Sunday evening, I will start posts to summarize each day out in the field.  I look forward to using my HoldSLR, which will make my camera both accessible during hiking and easy to carry along during the trip.

Quite the evening

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009
Quite the evening

Photography is so often hit and miss, a combination of planning and luck and timing and equipment that works and … well, you get the point.  So often, previsualized images do not happen because of light or weather or who knows what else.  Once in a while though, and this is why you keep going out again and again, things happen the way you hoped and better.   But, before I tell the story of my fantastic evening on Sheep Mountain Table, let me backtrack just a little.

After a cloudy morning (and no photos), I went out in the afternoon for a hike up the Saddle Trail.  This hike is a must-do if you want to get a different perspective on the area near Cedar Pass.  Once on top, it connects with the Castle Trail.  I took that trail to the west to take a look at possible morning light photo locations.  My real objective was to find a rattlesnake I could photograph, but no joy.  But I did find what will be a spectacular first light photo subject, as well as the surrounding areas for other morning light.  To get to that point, however, the shorter route will be to park at the Fossil Trail area and take the Castle Trail east from there.

But the mostly clear and scattered cloud skies told me that I had to get out to Sheep Mountain Table for the evening.  This would be my best opportunity in who knows how long to get up there, so, after having a late lunch at the Wagon Wheel Bar in Interior, I grabbed the rest of my gear and started the roughly one-hour drive to the table via Highway 44 and the town of (Not-So) Scenic.  I wanted to get there plenty early to photograph the ground below the table because of the many strange rock formations in the area.  Once on the top of the table, I detoured on a little unmaintained road to the east, exploring the vistas there.  I eventually parked at the pullout near mile 5 on the road, the last point you can go unless you have a 4WD vehicle with high clearance.  The Oglala Sioux Tribe, which manages the South Unit of the park, does not maintain the road beyond that point – and there is, arguably, a road. 

There was a rather thick band of clouds, spreading out like smoke from a fire, adding some drama to the skies.  But the sun eventually went below it, just in time to wash the land with that warm, reddish pink light that makes the margins of the day so magical.  I captured several images just featuring the clouds and the colors that remained after sun down.  On may way back down the road off the table, I spy some odd, tall plants (I need to find out what these are) silhoutted against the fading colors of the day.  The moon peeks out from in between cloud fragments, and I flatten my Gitzo tripod as low as it will go, aiming up and using the strange plants as foreground detail.  I spend about twenty minutes here, then get back on the road, down off the table and back toward the highway.  As I am almost to pavement, my peripheral vision captures a pond reflecting the colors of dusk.  I am serenaded by hundreds of chorus frogs as I capture the scene.

Fickle and fleeting

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
Fickle and fleeting

After perhaps an hour of sleep after another star trails attempt (out of focus this time, but I know the settings now), I arose at 5:00 a.m. to see a nice window in the clouds that had rolled in only in the hour since going to bed.  I drove up near the Old NE Road area to where I had decided I wanted to photograph first light.  Once the sun came up, I had about fifteen minutes before the sun went back behind the clouds again.  I captured some early, pre-sunrise images because I love to silhouette and also to show the dramatic change that direct light can have on a landscape.  I also like to photograph the progression of the light  once it is up, moving from a reddish pink to a strong golden color in only a matter of minutes.  There was a wonderful band of dark, textured clouds behind my subject, adding some nice drama to the scene.  Even after the sun fully went behind the clouds, those same clouds provided nice accents to the landscape that were worth capturing.  All through the shooting, I used my Lee graduated neutral density filters (GND), sometimes just with the 3-stop filter, sometimes with it and a 2-stop. 

Despite getting on scene with so little sleep, I felt rejuvinated.  Four solid days of clouds mixed with rain and snow can really sap your energy when the goal is beautiful landscape photos.  But seeing that light this morning, even for a short period of time, helped to recharge my photographic soul.  I look forward to what the evening will offer.  Now it is time to sleep.

A glimmer of hope

Monday, April 27th, 2009
A glimmer of hope

Seeing the forecast calling for three days of clouds and rain, I headed into Rapid City on Friday.  I spent a couple of days with my longtime friend, Jeff Volk, whom I have known since sixth grade.  I did some of my early exploring with Jeff, hiking around Rapid City and the hills, canvassing construction sites for fossills.  Each day was cloudy and snowy, and I knew it was a good time to get caught up with an old friend rather than waiting for the weather to improve out here. 

But, today was supposed to be the day when the weather started to break up.  While most of the day was the same flat cloudy it has been, by later in the afternoon the clouds started to develop texture.  So, I drove over to the Conata Basin area and parked in the backcountry entry point for Deer Haven.  I headed generally to the west for about a mile, then found a nice formation to climb up and set up for good evening views.  There was a small opening growing to the west, and I hoped the sun would get to shine through just before setting.  It would have made for a spectacular sunset, as the texture of the clouds would have provided a great surface for the warm, pinkish hues of a setting sun.

Unfortunately, that glimmer of hope did not rise to the level of reality.  But, I found what would be a great spot for first light.  I hope to head into the backcountry this Friday for a three-day backpack through Deer Haven and along Sage Creek.  If that pans out, then I can start my day photographing first light here before I head out. 

Power in clouds

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
Power in clouds

I love storm clouds.  We do not get thunderstorms hardly ever there, and when it rains, it is more like Seattle rain.  Flat, textureless skies that do not provide much for drama in landscape photography.  Sure, flat clouds are great for macro photographyor moving water, but awful for landscapes.  And photography aside, there is just something about a good thunderstorm, what with the smell, the sounds, the sometimes bizarre colors the sky turns; they add a quality of drama to everything.  When photographing scenics with dark, dramatic clouds, it is important to use a graduated neutral density filter, or more than one of them stacked.  While the main body of the clouds may be dark, they are still surrounded by bright sky that will either turn the landcape below them too dark or will be overexposed if you expose for the land.  A GND will correct that problem while preserving the drama of the dark clouds. 

My original plans for this evening were to drive out to Sheep Mountain Table, after yesterday’s scouting mission, to photograph at the pullout near mile 5 of the road.  When I saw the storm clouds brewing, I decided instead to stick around the North Unit of the park.  On the off chance that the clouds and storm did not provide good photo opportunities, I did not want to risk driving all the way out to Sheep Mountain Table, about an hour drive, with nothing to do.  So, I went out a little ways on the Sage Creek Road, photographing in the area between where it intersects with the main park road and the Badlands Wilderness Overlook.   There are several fantastic vistas all through that section of the road.  I think it is probably one of the most stunning areas along the road system in the park. 

On my way further into the park along the main road, I stopped in the Conata Basin area, before the Conata Road.  The mounds were spectacularly colored, and there was a fairly dramatic cloud hanging over the landscape.  Lightning was flickering here and there, so I adjusted my settings to give me close to 30 second exposures.  I still don’t have my Lightning Trigger yet – though it may have come in the mail today – so this is my best chance for capturing the lightning.  On my first exposure, I captured a nice double blast of lightning.  A few exposures later, I captured one dancing across the sky.  The other ten exposures yielded nothing and found their way into the trash bin.  The joy of digital photography. 

As I neared the bottom of Cedar Pass, I stopped near the Frog Pond to photograph some silhouetted formations.  There have been a couple of dramatic flashes of lightning, so I am hoping I will get lucky.  I come away with no lightning, but still keep one of the exposures because of the deep blues and texture in the sky.  Tomorrow morning, I will see if the sky can yield more drama or at least some color through breaks in the clouds. 

Article at home

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

The Alaska Journal of Commerce, a state-wide weekly newspaper with a business and industry focus, has published an article about my residency here in the Badlands.  Rob Stapleton, the writer of the piece, has informed me that it has been picked up by the Associated Press.  You can read the article, in this week’s issue, online here.

Nighttime time lapse

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Most photographers are loathe to share their failures with the world.  Rather, they post their best work on their web site or blog, leading to the belief that they always are successful.  As the Artist-in-Residence, I wanted to explore new techniques and share my creative process through this blog.  Today, I am sharing (another) not so successful effort.  It’s that darn night sky.  First, it was my less-than-successful star trails effort.  Now, it is my first time lapse featuring the night sky.  The objective was, through time lapse, to show the Earth’s rotation through the movement of the stars at night.

As I was not going to have a lot of sunlight during this exposure, I just used the Powerbase battery as my power source.  I set my camera to 400 ISO, aperture priority at -0.3 compensation, and f/4.0.  I was not sure if the aperture priority would adequately expose the night sky, but thought I would try.  That turned out to be not a good idea.  The starry night was severely underexposed.  Even adjusting all of the nighttime shots in Lightroom by increasing the exposure four stops was not enough to overcome.  Next time, I will set the ISO higher and use a manual exposure setting for the night sky to make it show more clearly.

The other problem I ran into was the plastic bag I used to protect my camera in the event it rained in the evening.  At some point in time, it became loose and started flopping about, forcing me to delete many images from the series at around the time of sunrise.  Where is a good roll of duct tape when you need it?  Again, lessons learned.

As dark as it is, you can still see the stars rotating and some aircraft moving through the sky.  You will need to maximize the slide show to see everything.  The pixelation is the result of a smaller format jpeg needed to create a smaller slide show that can be uploaded to the web.  Enjoy!

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Big scenic morning

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
Big scenic morning

I have not tried any big, sweeping scenic photos for the morning in a while, so that was my goal for this morning.  I went to the White River Overlook and waited for the first touches of light to caress the landscape.  I wasn’t sure it would be a good first light spot, but there is only one way to find out.  Turns out it is not.  Most of the formations that receive that first, pinkish light were way off in the distance.  By the time the light reached formations closer to me, the light had turned to a nice gold but had lost that early pink.  Still, it provided some nice shots and I moved on down the road to see what else the morning provided.  I stopped a few other places before turning around to collect my time lapse camera I had set up overnight.  Later this morning, I will go to the Interior School to give a presentation to the 6-8 Grade class.

Chasing the light

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
Chasing the light

Sometimes, landscape photography can literally involve chasing the light from one place to another.  After a long day of driving, hiking and shooting.  I decided to set up and photograph the evening landscapes closer to home.  I parked over at the ampitheater parking lot and crossed the road to set up on a grassy mound.  I wanted to capture the formations across the field from the visitor center.   The angle of the light was perfect and some dramatic clouds were building in the sky.  Then, about forty minutes before sunset, the sun went behind a cloud bank.  I waited for a while, then decided to get on the road and head west along the Highway 240 Badlands Loop.  I decided to just stop whenever I saw the light doing something interesting.  The first shot was a cracked, drying mud bed with green grasses showing the onset of spring.  This spot was one of my reflection ponds just two weeks ago.  I then captured reflections on one of my remaining ponds, what I call the “frog pond,” for the large population of chorus frogs residing there. 

Then there was a stop over by the Saddle Trail trailhead parking lot.   The light was doing wonders with a multi-layered, jagged formation.  I even pulled out the Hassleblad for this one.  Then, the light peaked, and hid behind the clouds again.  So, on I went, looking for the opportunities.  I ended up stopping about halfway between the Panorama Point pullout and the Bigfoot Basin pullout for my last light photos.  Sometimes I will decide exactly where I want to be, set up and wait for it.  Others, like tonight, I will simply go where the light takes me … and hope that I can keep up with it.

It’s midday – don’t put the camera away

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
It's midday - don't put the camera away

Normally, I would spend my midday taking a nap, doing some editing or other work on the computer.  Naps are definitely my preferred way of killing time during the flat, harsh light of midday.  And no other day can be worse for light than a hot, sunny day on the prairie.  But, after finishing up photographing some bikers who came down here from the Pierre area, I decided to head out on the Sage Creek Road and see what kind of wildlife I could find.  As I mentioned to another photographer earlier today, there is almost no such thing as bad light for photographing wildlife.  Almost.

And a good day for wildlife it was.  Again, there were several Bison along the road, and some way off in the distance I could see.  Prairie dogs, of course, were in abundance; one even let me get somewhat close to him.  Most places that receive a lot of visitors will produce habituated wildlife.  I don’t know what the visitation level is in the Badlands during peak season, but it must be a fair amount, given the amount of staff they have here during the summer.  But I am finding that the wildlife are not habituated.  It’s not like that time when I hiked the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park with my friend Andrew Von Bank – we were on a ten-day photo tour of the southwest – and I sat down at the end of the trail on the landing, taking off my day pack.  Instantly, I was swarmed by ground squirrels looking for a handout.  One even almost crawled up the leg of my shorts.  Here, the wildlife are still wild, and you have to take the time to let them get used to you before you can get close enough for good images.  Except for Bison, which don’t really need to care about anything at all.

I continued on to the South Unit, taking my first drive up the Sheep Mountain Table Road.  If you want to go all the way to the end of the road, for some of the most unusual landscape in all of the Badlands, you really have to have a vehicle with high clearance.  The road is not maintained and very rutted.   But, the first five miles, which will get you up on top of the table for a little ways, is well maintained and in excellent condition.  The end of that portion of the road is marked clearly with a pullout with spectacular views to the west.  This is definitely an evening photo location, and I will be making the trip out there for just that purpose once the next series of storms passes us by.  I include some shots from the area just to show that it is indeed possible to still take some decent shots during midday light.  The key is a warming polarizer.  The warming helps to mitigate the cold, harsh light of midday.  The polarizer helps to put some punch back into the colors that have been washed out by the harsh light.