Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

“The best way out is always through.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Widen Your View with Panoramic Stitching

I have always been a huge fan of panoramic photography, but have always been frustrated that it took either a very expensive camera or a very time-consuming manual path to create them. Back in the 80s and 90s, just before digital came around, there was a sudden boon in the interest in pans and there were a few camera companies (Fuji, was among them, I think) that made very expensive medium-format panoramic film cameras, but they cost about $2,500 as I recall. These cameras produce huge medium format negatives (some are 17" long, I think) and the images, when well done, were nothing short of spectacular. The pros who had them--and there were quite a few during the peak of the fad--were selling pan images in stock for considerable fees. I wanted one desperately, but just could never bring myself to find a couple of grand for what might turn out to be a toy.

There were also a few 35mm format wide view cameras, including the Widelux, which was the most famous, and then a Russian version called the Horizon (and I eventually got one of those and still have it). Another company, Noblex, made them, too, but I don't believe I ever used one. The 35mm cameras were nice, they were fun, but they just didn't have the impact of the larger-format cameras and they also had some mechanical issues because of their design. I only used the Horizon a few times because it used a swing-lens technology (the lens pivoted over a curved film plane and used a slit-type aperture to write the images) that wasn't very reliable. The concept was perfect and was based on the design of the original Cirkut camera (circa 1904) and when the cameras worked well, the images were nice. But so often the lens would hesitate or just stop and then the image was garbage.

The more artistic and crafty way to create pans was to simply shoot several (or many) overlapping views of a scene with a traditional camera and then assemble the images (prints) together into a very wide (or very tall) collage. David Hockney, painter/photographer/artsy guy, became famous for this type of work and his book Cameraworks was a collection of collages and pans made from 35mm cameras and the book blew my mind--and still does: the book is out of print (I bought a bunch of copies for $5 at the old Yale bookstore when they first came out--wish I had bought a ton more) and sells for a couple of hundred bucks used! If you see it for sale cheap at a used at a book sale, grab it. But Hockney was (and is) a genius and though I tried, I am apparently not a genius and was never able to imitate his vision or skill.

OK, so skip ahead a few decades and enter the digital camera. One of the first and coolest things that I discovered about digital editing and digital cameras was that you could use a process called "stitching" to shoot any number of overlapping images of a subject and then "join" them together (Photoshop and Photoshop Elements do it automatically, so no skill is required for that part) into spectacular digital pans. I have had so much fun shooting pans since I discovered this method that it seems like a gift of the photo Gods to me. After all these years, I can shoot the kind of panoramic image that I want and there is no special skill (or expensive camera) required. The trick is just to shoot a series of images of a wide scene (or a tall one, don't forget) where each frame overlaps (say about 30-percent) from the previous frame. Then use your editing software to stitch them. Using a tripod helps a lot and having even lighting across the scene helps, too.

For the shot of Stonington Harbor in Maine shown here, I used a high-end compact Olympus camera (a 5mp camera) and took five overlapping images and then stitched them together. The resulting image (at 300dpi, or print resolution) is 26-inches wide. When I get a few minutes I'll write a full tutorial and post it on my main site. (There are nearly 100 tutorials there already, by the way--all free!) Is this a cool concept or what? I guess I still love panoramas as much as ever!

Friday, March 25, 2011

In Memory of Mr. Steichen

On this day in 1973, one of my photographic heroes, Edward J. Steichen died. He was one of the most famous and accomplished photographers of all time, largely invented the art of fashion photography (he was a fixture in the pages of Vogue) and changed the way the world looked at and appreciated photography, helping it gain acceptance as a fine-art form.

Several years prior to his dying, my mother bought me a copy of his autobiography Edward Steichen: A Life in Photography (now out of print--but do look for it at used book sales) and reading it changed my life: it was the single thing that made me decide to become a photographer. My mother was a pretty amazing person that way: even though she much preferred that I go to law school or be a plumber--something that I could actually use to earn a real living--she couldn't resist buying me books to inspire the artistic side of me. She saw that book on sale one day and knew she wanted me to understand why this man, who had sat in our kitchen once (I was about eight or nine at the time), was so important to the world of photography and so bought it for me.

My father was a photographer, so I was inclined in that direction already, but reading Steichen's biography hooked me on photography forever. Just the idea that he was doing something that he loved (and getting rich and famous) was very inspiring. But more than that, he seemed like such a soulful, interesting human being, I saw him as a role model for character, as well. Among his huge accomplishments in life was being the curator of the famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art--easily the most famous photography exhibition ever mounted and one of the bestselling photo books of all time The Family Of Man.

I remember clearly coming into my parents' house one afternoon and my mother handing me the front page of the Bridgeport Post (now the Connecticut Post) with Steichen's picture on the front page and telling me that he had died. He was in his 90s, he had an amazing life, but it was still sad to think that that sweet man who only lived about 20 miles from me (in Redding, Connecticut), was gone. I clipped that obit and put it in my copy of his autobiography, and there it remains today. I haven't read it in a while, but I think it even mentioned that he had a three-legged dog named Tripod, which as a kid, one just one more kernel of interest to fascinate me.

Interestingly, while Steichen died on the 25th of March, his birthday was the 27th. And on that day, Sunday, I'll tell you more about this amazing man. The photo here is one of many portraits he did of Greta Garbo--and she wrote later that it was her favorite portrait.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Super Moon....Super Cropped

Like everyone else with a camera, it seems, I went out last Saturday evening to photograph the "super moon" or perigee moon--reportedly the largest moon we'll see for 20 years or so. Photographing the moon itself (without anything else in the frame) seems kind of redundant after a while, because all moon shots pretty much look the same. But it can be a nice element if used creatively in a landscape (or even as an element in a Photoshop montage) if you have an interesting foreground. I was shooting at the beach, at the mouth of the Housatonic River, and while I had water to use as a foreground (to get that nice silver or gold river of light), the problem that night was that because it was fairly dark when the moon rose, there was almost no way to balance the darker foreground with such a bright moon. 

Did you know that a good exposure for the full moon itself is the same as for a sunny landscape? In other words, you can get a good exposure of the moon (and just the moon) at say, 1/125 at f/16, at ISO 200, which is approximately the correct exposure for a landscape on a sunny day? But think about it, what is the moon but a lunar landscape--illuminated by the sun! 

There are other things you can do with a shot of just the moon though. For instance, you can enlarge it quite a bit and then merge it into another nighttime landscape--kind of cool because you can then have a huge moon over a city, for example. When I have a few minutes I'll combine the shot above into a skyline of Manhattan so you can see how that looks. In order to see how big a moon I could get out of one of my rather distant moon shots from Saturday night (see the shot below--I shot it with a 300mm lens, equivalent to a 450mm in 35mm and still not that big when it comes to moon photography), I decided to just keep enlarging it in Photoshop and sharpening it after each enlargement. The cropped image (at 300dpi) was about two inches square. So I went up in steps: to three inches square, then four inches square, etc. The final size of this file (again, at 300dpi) is about six-inches square. 

If you use the "bicubic smoother" option at the bottom of the resizing window in Photoshop, you can actually get surprisingly bigger images and better image quality by stepping it up this way than you might think--of anything. Use it when you want to make prints bigger than their native size or want to just use a part of the image for an enlargement.

Anyway, I was just playing with this shot, I did it in under five minutes. I cropped it, then blew it up (changed the dimensions) and repeated that three or four times and the moon you see above it the result. Again, I wasn't being careful as I would for a finished image, but just playing. Below is the uncropped photo. Considering how quickly I put this together in Photoshop, the enlarged shot is kind of cool looking.  Try this sometime if you shot the moon the other night (or have any shots of the moon) and see how big you can go. 

By the way, you can now subscribe to my blog postings via email--you'll get each new post in your email. And please help support the blog, start your Amazon shopping by clicking on an ad! Here's the uncropped shot:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Welcome Spring, We've Been Expecting You

A Prayer in Spring
by Robert Frost

OH, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orcahrd white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
To which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends he will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ode to a Season Ended

by Robert Frost

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?'

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Watching Sleeping Kitties (Earnestly) Sleep

As I've mentioned in the past few postings, one of the fun things about updating a book and needing lots of photos is that it makes you delve deeper into your files--something that everyone should do now and then. While going through a folder of gardening photos from last June the other night,  I found a series of pictures of one of my cats sleeping. I love the very tight framing and the photo isn't cropped, either--I shot her with a 200mm lens from a few feet away (actually, a 70-300mm Nikkor set at 200mm). I'll probably use the photo in the book. I love watching the cats sleep--they sleep so earnestly, so intently. I can tell from the green carpeting that I shot this frame on my back porch, but I used built-in flash to avoid camera shake. Flash fires for such a brief duration (especially with close subjects) that camera shake is completely avoided. Go through those old files, lots of fun stuff in there!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Watching Pete Seeger Listen...

It's been kind of fun the past few weeks illustrating the update of my exposure book (Exposure Photo Workshop: Develop Your Digital Photography Talent) because I've had to go through a lot of older files looking for specific types of images--like concert shots. I found some great shots of Sonny Rollins (see previous posting) and a few other performers and the other night came across a folder full of shots of Pete Seeger in concert. The Seeger shots were taken at a concert during his "Pete Seeger at 89" concert tour about three years ago; the concert was produced by my friend Walter Wagoner as a benefit for the noncommercial FM station WPKN where I have done a show for more than 20 years.

Pete was joined that night by several guest performers, including his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Guy Davis and I have a number of nice shots of Pete singing alone and with some of these other musicians. My favorite shots though are the ones where Pete is sitting at the back of the stage listening to the others perform. The look on his face--an expression of just utter enjoyment and total concentration--is wonderful. During the entire concert, more than two hours long, I don't think Pete ever took this expression off of his face. He was obviously having a great time. And as much as I tried to keep a photographic eye on the others when they were performing, I found my attention drifting back to this master singer and storyteller who, even at 89 years old, was still enjoying the stories and the songs and no doubt still learning new tricks from performers less than half his age. Perhaps that intense desire to learn and to enjoy life is what has placed him among the greatest folk singers in history. He could not have known it that night, but his enjoyment at being inspired entered my camera and gave me so much more than mere concert shots.

At a concert once in Tennessee, I told Pete that the area in front of the stage was too packed for me to shoot, and asked him if he minded if I sat on the backstage steps and shot from there. He said, "Why don't you just sit on the stage and shoot from there?" And so I did. That show was held in a tent and the tent was just a few feet (literally a few feet) away from some railroad tracks. During the show Pete sang "Freight Train" a song by the great songwriter Elizabeth Cotten who--amazingly enough--once worked as a housekeeper for Pete Seeger's parents (and who lived to the age of 102--so apparently there is something healthy about singing folks songs). I don't recall if it was during the show or just as it ended, but a freight train went by while the tent was still packed and it was almost as if it were on cue. The whistle blew, the wheels rumbled and Elizabeth Cotten's song came to life. When you hang around people with magic in their souls, magic things happen. Twice now that has happened when I was lucky enough to be around Pete Seeger.

Photo notes: I shot this photo with a Nikon D90 camera with a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom lens. Exposure was 1/50 second at f/5.6 and the white balance was set to tungsten, ISO 1600. I converted the photo to black and white in Photoshop CS3 and then toned it using the b&w conversion tool.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

File Management: Start Today...Oh, and a Cool Photo of the Great One

Tonight I was going through some old files looking for a low-light photo to use in a book I'm illustrating. I'm really glad that I went looking because I found two folders of pictures that I shot of jazz great Sonny Rollins (aka, The Great One) that I'd nearly forgotten. I shot them years ago on the New Haven Green one beautiful summer night. Seeing Sonny live was one amazing enough, photographing him while he was blowing his horn was a shift in consciousness that can't be described. I was so close to him that I could heard his breath when he inhaled (which was surprisingly rare considering how hard he was exhaling) and I could hear his foot tapping time. You want a cool concert experience, get on stage with Sonny Rollins sometime. You won't be the same after.

Back to photography: The reason that I lost these photos (and thousands of other concert photos over the years, both film and digital) is because I'm not the most organized person in the world when it comes to filing my photo collection--which now numbers in the hundreds of thousands of photos. I've shot some of the greatest musicians alive--Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Count Basie, Eric Burdon--to name a handful. Where are they all? Heaven only knows--somewhere either in boxes or in my vast array of hard drives. I'd love to take a year off and just organize my photos, but unless I happen to marry a wealthy heiress (if you know one, introduce me--perhaps the O'Henry heiress of Seinfeld fame) or win the lottery, as they say, they'll probably remain a mess.

So my advice to you--especially if you're relatively new to taking lots of pictures, is get an organization system going: today. Do not wait until you're in my situation. I'm gradually digging out and beginning to organize things, but it's going to take a long time. I suggest two things if you're serious about getting organized: Consider buying Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 software--which is an organizational tool (mainly for RAW images) that interfaces nicely with Adobe Photoshop CS5. Then buy yourself a copy of The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management for Photographers. I would suggest getting the book first--it's easily the best book written on the subject of file management and worth the $32. It's actually worth a lot more than that. And read about Lightroom 3 and see if spending $250 is something you might want to do if it means developing a system that will go forward with you through your photography life.

I'm thrilled I found these photos of Sonny. I wish I knew were my Jimi Hendrix negs were though--or those cool slides of Johnny Cash I shot at Toad's Place! Speaking of concerts, I wonder where Sonny is playing these days...I'd better go check his site.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Lovely Bokeh for You (well, maybe)

For the past month or so I've been updating my book Exposure Photo Workshop: Develop Your Digital Photography Talent and because of the cold weather I haven't been shooting much, but last Sunday we had a nice day and so I headed to the beach. One of the things I needed to illustrate was the concept of "bokeh" (pronounced, I think, bo-keh).  Bokeh, which comes from the Japanese word "boke" which translates in English to "mental haze" or, according to some translations, even "senility." The word came into photographic circles in the mid 1990s and it's used to describe the quality of the out-of-focus area in a photograph that has limited depth of field. Good bokeh is when you have a nice silky soft/smooth out of focus area, and bad bokeh is when the background (particularly out-of-focus highlight circles) distracts from the subject itself (see below).

Today I had an email exchange with my photographer friend (and editor, who has edited many of my books) Derek Doeffinger about the subject of bokeh. Derek's interpretation of bokeh is that, while it can describe the OOF (out of focus) areas of a photo at any aperture, it is most often used to describe the OOF area of images shot at full aperture with large-aperture (for example, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or f/2) lenses. I think he may be right in how the term started out being used, but today it kind of loosely refers to the aesthetic quality of any OOF area in a photo. I shot my photo of the shell with a 70-300mm lens at f/4.5, so it may not be exactly what some purists are talking about, but I think the concept is the same: the quality of the OOF areas. And the shell photo does have a nice soft OOF background. Derek, by the way, is author of several beautiful books of waterfall photographs shot in upstate New York, including: Waterfalls and Gorges of the Finger Lakes and Waterfalls of the Adirondacks and Catskills (New York). If you're heading up that way this summer and want to shoot some cool waterfalls, get his books--you simply won't believe the photographs. In fact, I'm using a few of those photos in my exposure book (along with several more of his photos of other subjects--including some cools shots from Mexico and Nicaragua).

So, I'm not sure that any purists would look at my shell shot and say "nice bokeh," but for now it will have to do and I'll keep shooting more photos with this nice visual concept. If you want to read more about bokeh, just do a Google search, or look on Flickr for bokeh groups. Below, by the way, is a photo with what I would call "bad" bokeh--the highlight circles are a major distraction from the daffodils. I shot it up in Litchfield a few years ago and I'll talk about where I shot it in an upcoming post--you'll want to know about if if you live in New England...teaser: there are more than a million daffodils there. Oh yeah, and by the way, it's a store-bought shell--my radio partner Ken Brown thought I might have been lucky and found it on the Connecticut shore. I did, I found it on the shore in Mystic for $100!