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Thom Hogan
Photographer and Writer -- Nikon and Mirrorless Camera Expert
Photographer and Writer -- Nikon and Mirrorless Camera Expert

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Quick Reflection

Whenever you deal with reflections you have multiple decisions to make. One is compositional symmetry (do you split the horizon right at the middle of the frame?). Another is exposure symmetry (should the main item and reflection match in exposure?). A third is reflection clarity (is the reflection as clear as the original?).

Sometimes one or more of these things is almost pre-determined by the scene in front of you; you'd have to introduce an effect or tool (e.g. graduated ND filter) to alter the reality.

One thing I love about Alaska (and Patagonia) is that sometimes you don't have to do much of that thinking, because the image is relatively obvious in front of you and the light lingers long enough to take your time in working it. Just compose it and shoot at your own pace.

Which is exactly what I did here just before I went to bed for the evening. The mood of the exposure reality in front of me (foreground a bit darker, far mountain in last waning light, reflection soft) was exactly the mood I felt: end of the day, with the focus slowly receding from me.

After taking this quick and dirty "check" shot, I proceeded to make a few further decisions and shoot a 10 frame pano. Now I just have to work through the details in post (the glacier in this shot is a little weak, for instance (it's the thin diagonal white line below the peak at center going to the water line).

One reason why I leave my quick-and-dirty camera (in this case a Panasonic GF5) in 16:9 format is to better assess pano framing. That's not perfect, as I often make my panos 2:1 or slightly more, but it's usually enough for me to assess the potential "energy" of a wide print.

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From the Kayak

Not the greatest of images I've shot, but I've been asked questions about kayaking with cameras before, so my recent trip makes this a good time to answer them as a teaching point.

First up, you really want one of the cameras designed for water use when you're only six inches off the water all day. I've tried a dozen of those waterproof compact cameras, and the only two that do well for a serious photographer, IMHO, are the Coolpix AW100 and the Olympus T-G1 (this photo was taken with a TG-1).

Pity that none of these cameras shoot raw, though. For that, you'd have to go to a bigger camera with a dedicated waterproof housing. For example, I use the Canon G1X with Canon's inexpensive housing when I need to shoot raw on the water, but that makes for a slightly bulky package on a kayak. Manageable, but barely.

However, today's main point is this: note how my partner's camera is vulnerable: handstrap not attached, holding the camera with gloves. Very easy to have the camera slip from you, and then all your images are gone to the bottom of whatever you're paddling. (Hint: download before you head out.) But you can't really have the handstrap always attached while paddling, as the camera gets in the way. My way of dealing with this potential problem is to use the AW100 or TG-1 with a "floatie strap".

Even if you don't use a waterproof camera you'll still want a floatie. First, these straps are easier to get on and off your hands when kayaking. But if you drop your camera into the water, it will float (at least enough to retrieve it and all the images you've shot so far). The downside is that they're bulkier to deal with overall, so make sure you've figured out where the camera goes while you're actually paddling and how you'll handle the awkward floating part.

My camera slips into a pocket on the front of my PFD with the floatie left hanging out. Yes, that means that I had to pick a PFD that had a pocket in which my camera would fit. A lot of kayakers instead use a clear waterproof box strapped to the deck just in front of them. They put their camera away in the box when it's not in use. There isn't a camera store at the dock where you depart, so you've got to figure all this out long before you put your bottom end down the cockpit. And yes, we're headed for that cave in the glacier ;~)
2 Photos - View album

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Assignment One: Bum Lens Bonanza

All this week's assignments will have something in common, which I'll discuss at the end of the week.

Here's your first shooting assignment: pick the absolutely worst lens you own and go out and take pictures using it. Not just any pictures, but the best possible pictures you can. Learn to use whatever liability that lens has to advantage.

Now, if you go out and do this with a lens that's got a cracked front element, expect a lot of folk to walk up to you and tell you that your equipment is damaged. Don't let that stop you. You'll find that, surprisingly, most such damage doesn't actually keep you from taking decent pictures, though it might reduce your contrast. Use a lens hood and do other things to keep from losing too much. That's one of the points of this exercise: figure out what your drawback is and optimize your shooting around it.

If you've only got one kit lens, then restrict yourself to the worst focal length(s) and aperture(s) of that lens (hint: it's not the middle range, it's one or both of the extremes).

Now don't cheat on this assignment. Don't bring any of your "good" lenses. Just your bad one (or ones). Lenses you avoid using for some reason. Let's smash through that avoidance and find out what you can really do with them. You might be surprised.

If you'd like to show your results, I've posted this article on my Google+ page so that we can get them all in one place. Don't expect me to do image critique, however. That's not the point of this week's assignments.

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And if you think timing the tail is difficult (and it is), getting the head up on lunge feeding is even more difficult. You're looking at open water when suddenly you have a whale head in front of you and it's only there for a moment. But you have no idea it's coming, let alone where. It's all quick reaction and having the camera preset.

Here's an example where I was set all wrong (I was at 100mm because I was photographing the whales right next to me; I would have liked to be at 300mm, obviously, but you have absolutely no time for that, as this happens very rapidly). If you look closely you see little black bits to the left and right of that whale: those are fish jumping out of the water in front of him as he lunged upward ;~). Also, if you don't recognize what you're looking at, the vertical part is the top of the whale's mouth, the horizontal part is the bottom. In other words, his mouth is open at 90 degrees as he came up.

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Call me Ishmael

"I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." There's a place in Alaska where whales gather, and where one massive humpback with the name of Gabriel sings. I've now heard those songs, seen those pods, and paddled those waters. Color me impressed.

Photo: Olympus OM-D EM-5, Panasonic 100-300mm

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My review of the Nikon D800 and D800E is now posted at:

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Did You Hear Something Go Boom?

It's a holiday week here in the States, so no big lesson. Just a small one.

This is actually two images. They were combined by copying image two over image one in Photoshop. A new layer gets created. Since they were both from the same camera and precise alignment wasn't necessary, I didn't need to do anything else other than change the Blend mode to Lighten. Did some fireworks just go off in your head?

Bonus lesson: note that these fireworks aren't blown out (there are some small highlight blowout areas, which you'll never avoid), but the main elements are within proper exposure. Exposure is mostly determined by aperture, ISO, and distance to the fireworks. The closer you are, the more you probably need to stop down, especially if you're using long exposures as I was here. Don't get caught up in the fireworks display. Take an early exposure and evaluate it carefully. Note that in most programs the intensity of the fireworks will get higher, especially at the end, so if you start with overexposure, you're going to get a mess of blown values at the end.

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Paris on Fire

Let's see, where were we? Ah yes, abstracts. One of the things I've been playing with--for reasons that'll eventually become clear--is moving the camera intentionally. Funny thing is that I first encountered this as a filmmaker (and no, I don't mean pans, I mean haphazard or camera motion not with or on subject). And it's intrigued me ever since.

Now let's see, what if I had an icon, a reflection in the window of a bus that drove in front of me, and a bunch of other stuff. Heck lets add some people walking with some strange lit contraptions (Vegas is like that. Oh, did you think this was France?). What could I do with all that? That's today's lesson.

I was getting frustrated by all the traffic in front of the spot I had chosen to try An Eifel Tower Landing shot when I realized that maybe I should just embrace the chaos and see if I could incorporate it. This is one variation I came up with, which now had me trying to time my camera move on the Tower with the timing of the bus coming in on the left. Yikes.

But I must have liked what I was seeing. I had dozens of variations on this when I downloaded the card. Maybe some day I'll go back and try to actually get the shot I previsualized ;~).

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What is It 3?

Like a lot of photographers, I have my special little problems I try to solve.

This happens to be a tree in my mom's back yard, which I've been working on trying to get just the right image of for years. Because it's the bark of the tree that appeals to me and that produces some pretty bizarre bits and pieces, I generally work on this puzzle as an abstract. So all the discussion of the last two weeks still applies.

But today's lesson is a bit different. I haven't really written anything about bokeh (pronounced bow-kay), which is the concept of how the out of focus (OOF) areas of an image look. Here I want you to look at the brightest green out of focus highlight. Notice how it has just a hint of octagon to it? That's because this was shot with a lens that uses 8-blades in the aperture, and those blades weren't rounded.

Indeed, the very top of the OOF highlights have a bit of a point to them while the rest of the blade intersections are better masked, something I call bokeh asymmetry. On the other hand, this lens doesn't have another problem that's common with OOF highlights: edge reinforcement.

Lenses with lots of chromatic aberration, especially longitudinal, tend to form a slight ring at the boundary of the OOF highlight. Here, the highlight falls off naturally and has no real hot spots of its own.

Since there's little in the bokeh to distract, I'd tend to call this good bokeh. It's not great, as it does have the non-circular defect, but it's still not that bad.

These days, of course, the temptation would be to just use Photoshop's tools to produce a better blur in the background. Still, the bokeh of the lens will intersect with that: a greatly distorted circle would still be a greatly distorted circle after Photoshop's blur, unless you just obliterated the background completely.

I've heard a few photographers say that because Photoshop now has handy tools for this (and onOne's FocalPoint is another such tool), that you don't need a lens with good bokeh. I'd argue that you still do. Better data in, better data out.
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