Photo: Grand Canyon (probably)

I love flights to and from Las Vegas: beyond an aerial view of The Strip, there's a good chance you'll also catch a glimpse of the Hoover Dam or a Canyon or three. Here's one (apparently) of The Grand Canyon which I took towards the end of my Virgin Atlantic flight from London Gatwick to Las Vegas a few days ago.

Just before the seatbelt signs came on, the pilot announced anyone on the right side of the plane would enjoy a good view of the Grand Canyon. Cue pretty much every passenger leaping out of their seat and crowding around the windows until I'm sure the plane was forced to go round in circles.

Anyway, once I got a clear view of the window, this was my view. I'm not sure if it's still the Grand Canyon or not, but I'm pleased with it. As always I used my Panasonic GX1, this time fitted with the Lumix 7-14mm at 14mm, or 28mm equivalent. When shooting through a window, I always find pushing the lens right up against it will minimize reflections, and cupping any gaps with your hands should get rid of any other unwanted light from inside the cabin or room. Lens hoods are perfect for doing this as they allow you to essentially make a light seal with a window, without actually touching it with your precious optics. I also find shooting with daylight white balance and nudging the exposure compensation down a little helps. Either way, you'll almost certainly be tweaking the levels a bit afterwards to bring back some blacks and boost the contrast. That's pretty much all I've done here.

I'm especially excited to post this image tonight as I'm currently about two hour's drive from the Canyon and will be visiting tomorrow! It's been about ten years since I was last there and my digital camera back then had just two Megapixels!
Photo: Antelope Canyon - got a mirrorless camera? No permit for you!

I spent a lovely hour at Lower Antelope Canyon near Page in Arizona this morning. Antelope Canyon is a famous slot canyon carved by flash floods which have exposed beautifully coloured rock walls with grooved surfaces. The canyon itself is a narrow passageway about two stories deep and around a couple of meters wide. In places you have to squeeze your self through, but unlike caving there's rarely a feeling of claustrophobia. If you can climb down some narrow stairs, you'll have no problem paying a visit.

Antelope Canyon is probably most famous for beams of sunlight, which at the right time of day and year can create dramatic-looking tubes of light, shining down through the fine dust. As such it's become a mecca for photographers and tourists alike.

There's actually two Antelope Canyons: Upper and Lower, located on opposite sides of a main road. A quick turn off and you're there moments later. They're Navajo National Parks and you'll need to pay a fee to enter. Upper Antelope Canyon is widely regarded to have 'better' sunbeams, and as such is the more crowded of the two. I wanted to avoid or at least minimize the crowds, so headed to Lower Antelope Canyon. I should also add that having seen lots of photos of the sunbeams in the canyons, I now find them a little contrived or even cheesy. Impressive, yes, but I just don’t really like the effect. For me I much prefer to avoid the sky, ground and sunbeams altogether, and instead focus on the beautiful, abstract swirly patterns and colours. I don't even want it to be immediately obvious which way up the image should be.

I knew what to expect in terms of pictures as I'd visited Lower Antelope Canyon a few years ago during November. It was very quiet then and I think I was pretty much alone down there other than about five other photographers. Back then I took my Mamiya 7II medium format film camera. This time was a different story. It's been a surprisingly warm October and also a lot busier than I expected; indeed it's been hard to find accommodation in some towns. As I drew-up to Lower Antelope Canyon parking area, there were already a lot of cars present and a small queue at the entry.

For safety reasons, both Canyons are only accessible by tours, in groups of around 20 people, leaving every 15 minutes or so. The fee at Lower Antelope Canyon in October 2012 was $26 USD for entry and a tour lasting about an hour. I believe Upper Antelope Canyon is more expensive.

Photographers will however be pleased to learn there's another option. You can request a permit which allows you to enter and 'self-guide' for up to two hours. This is what I did the first time I visited, and what I wanted to do again, but today was different. I'd already been identified as a potentially serious photographer due to my tripod, but then the man in the ticket office asked to see my camera. I produced my Panasonic GX1 to which he asked 'does that have a mirror?' 'No!' I proudly replied, to which he said 'then you can't have a permit'! He then explained that permits were only granted to people carrying DSLRs or film cameras, especially larger formats. This makes sense as it separates the serious photographers from the tourists with the point-and-shoots on wobbly tripods. To keep the crowds flowing through the Canyons, the latter would be kept in tour groups, while only the former would be allowed to roam free.

It's a fine idea, but like all these things, where do you draw the line and importantly which side will you be on? Well, the managers of Antelope Canyons in their wisdom drew the line with mirrors. I was actually told I could not have a self-guided photographer's permit because I had a mirror-less camera. I of course tried to explain my camera was every bit as serious as a DSLR in terms of quality, control and lens choice, but he was adamant: no mirror, no permit.

I really didn't want to join a group of 20 others, so he offered me another option: a private tour with my own guide. It sounded expensive, but in fact cost the same as a group tour! So off I went with Reuben, my guide, who turned out to be a photographer himself, although one who also strongly believed mirrors were the way forward.

As it happened, it all worked out really well. Despite our initial differences of opinion, I soon warmed to Reuben and I think he was at least bemused, if not actually interested in my ramblings about future camera trends. More importantly he knew all the good angles in the Canyon and while I normally don't like being advised which direction is best for the shot, he did point out a lot of angles and compositions I'd not noticed. He also listened to my preference of no sky or ground.

I should also add that during my time down there, two or three tours shuffled past and I was impressed to see their guides allowing plenty of time for all the photographers in the group to set up their shots. It didn't seem rushed at all or creatively compromised, other than being in a group environment. Many also had cameras with mirrors and decent tripods! Interestingly I met with some people who'd visited Upper Antelope Canyon at the exact same time and they had a much less enjoyable experience, describing it as a zoo at times and noted several photographers being told to hurry up! Then again it easy to get lost in the experience, but it did reinforce my view that despite the fewer sunbeams, the Lower Canyon is a nicer overall choice.

So what do you need when you're down there? Technically speaking the Canyons benefit from very wide angle shots. They can be dusty too, so you probably don't want to be swapping lenses down there. You'll also want to shoot with small apertures for a nice large depth-of-field, and thankfully the subject matter won't be greatly affected by diffraction, so feel free to use f11, f16 or even smaller. Small apertures and low light levels will however result in long exposures, typically of at least a few seconds if you're using the lowest ISOs for the best quality, so a tripod is absolutely necessary.

As you already know, I took my Panasonic GX1 and as luck would have it, I was travelling with the perfect lens for the job: the Lumix 7-14mm ultra wide zoom, equivalent to 14-28mm. I had these mounted on my Gitzo 1514T traveller tripod with Markins ball head. I took lots of single exposures, but also captured some bracketed sequences just in case I choose to apply some evil HDR techniques at a later date!

The photo you see here is just one I've quickly grabbed from my selection today: it’s a single exposure of 1.6 seconds at f10 and 160 ISO (the base for the GX1). The lens was set to 28mm equivalent and the white balance set to daylight. There's minimal processing other than a slight tweak of the levels, so what you're looking at is very close to what came straight out the camera and what I saw in person. I hope to share some of the better ones at a later date, but really wanted to discuss my entry experience with you sooner rather than later!

I'm really pleased with the photos I took today in my brief hour exploring Lower Antelope Canyon, and also happy with my private tour. Ultimately though I remain concerned by the management's judgment call on what constitutes a serious camera - or at least one serious enough to allow an independent permit. The guy behind the counter knew what he was looking for, and had already identified my camera as mirror-less before even asking. Last time I visited with a medium format film camera, which ticked all the right boxes for the permit, but this time my choice of camera actually prevented the access I desired.

I genuinely believe mirror-less cameras are the future, and while it'll take a while before they dominate DSLRs, more and more of us will start using them as our cameras of choice, especially when travelling. I've always enjoyed jesting with friends about who's carrying the most 'serious' camera, or chatting with pros who often feel they have to carry a big camera to be taken seriously by clients, but this is the first time I've been inconvenienced or potentially compromised due to my choice of carrying a mirror-less camera. Has anyone experienced anything like this anywhere else? Either way, if you're planning a trip to Antelope Canyon, the message is clear: if you want a photographer's permit, make sure you have a mirror.

(cc +Trey Ratcliff , +Robert Scoble , +Olympus , +Ken McMahon )
Photo: San Francisco nights

Thanks so much to +Thomas Hawk for arranging such a lovely evening last night. Around 40 of us met up for a tasty dinner at Henry Hunan's, quickly worked-off by a steep hike up Montgomery Street for a classic view of the Transamerica Pyramid. Much long exposure photography ensued. Here's one I snapped with my Panasonic GX1 and Leica 25mm lens (50mm equivalent). It's a ten second exposure at f8 and the base 160 ISO of the camera.

It was hard enough to hike up there with my light Micro Four Thirds kit, so maximum respect goes to +Peter Adams who lugged up a set of flashlights and batteries for an excellent group shot which you'll also see in various streams! I'm looking forward to seeing those jumping portraits Peter!

I was also flattered to have my portrait taken by +Daniel Krieger who'd just shot Annie Liebovitz the night before - looking forward to seeing that too!

It was fun evening and wonderful to catch up with old friends including +Karen Hutton , +Sam Breach , +Julia Peterson , +Faran Najafi , +Chris Chabot , +Swee Oh  and to meet many new ones including +Barry Blanchard , +Ricardo Lagos , +Alexis Coram , +Bryan Nabong , +Suzanne Haggerty , +Guillaume Desachy , +Andrea Ewald , +Joette A. Wangsgard , +Bill Sanders , +Todd Sipes and everyone else! Sorry if I missed any of you, or if I didn't get a chance to chat much! Looking forward to seeing many of you again on Saturday and probably around town over the next couple of weeks!
Photo: STOP! In the name of street photography!

There's something irresistible about a big STOP sign, especially if it's painted on the floor. What seems so appropriate in scale when you're in a car becomes enormous when seen on foot. Especially at night. Even more so with a wide angle lens from close up.

Okay, I admit, there's some plagiarism going on here. I spotted +Karen Hutton  photographing this street with the stop sign in extreme close-up during our North Beach San Francisco photowalk on Thursday 11 October, with what I assume was her 14mm lens. So I pushed her aside and set up my own shot with my Panasonic GX1 and Lumix 7-14mm at 7mm (coincidentally also 14mm equivalent). I did however go for a higher position. So it is a different shot, honest.

The scene was bathed in horrible orange street-lighting, so I decided to go for a monochrome approach and boost the contrast a bit - after-all in my olden darkroom days, I was rather fond of hard printing. The only thing remaining was a minor cloning to remove a small shadow of my camera and tripod from the bottom of the frame.

As I handed my camera over to show the photo later on, I noticed it actually looked quite nice upside-down, with the word STOP shown the correct way up. Indeed I was so tempted to post a version rotated by 180 degrees, but it became more of a typography shot than one of a slightly sinister-looking street at night. If you have the convenience of a display (or a head) which can be turned by 180 degrees, let me know which way up you prefer…
Photo: Creamy bokeh on the #WWPW #GGP2012 

Had a wonderful time at the #WWPW event in Golden Gate Park last night, hosted by +Catherine Hall and organised by +elizabeth hahn . Wonderful to meet everyone, catch up with old friends and meet many new ones! And thanks again to the wonderful +Cynthia Pyun not just for her tasty cookies, but for generously driving me home! (Thanks also Mitch!)

Here's a shot I took with my Panasonic GX1 and Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens at f1.8. This lens is fast-becoming one of my favourites in the Micro Four Thirds catalogue and represents great value. It may not focus as close as the Leica 45mm f2.8, but as I've hopefully shown here, it can still grab a reasonable macro shot.

I took this one while discussing depth of field and #bokeh with +Karen Hutton , who'll hopefully also post a similar shot taken with her Canon 100mm f2.8 macro. There's a misconception that bokeh refers to shallow depth of field, but it actually refers to the quality and appearance of the actual out-of-focus parts of the image.

Yep, that's right, the way one lens handles out-of-focus subjects is not the same as another. In the same way as one lens may be sharper than another for the areas that are in focus, there are also differences for the out-of-focus parts. Macro and portrait aficionados take the quality of these out-of-focus effects very seriously and that's why one lens may cost considerably more than another. It's all about the creaminess of the bokeh!

So how does the Olympus 45mm f1.8 measure up? I'd say it's not quite as good as top-end Canon / Nikon macro and portrait lenses for the ultimate creamy bokeh affect, but at a fraction of the size, weight and cost, it performs very respectably indeed.
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Gordon Laing
Public
San Francisco nights

Thanks so much to +Thomas Hawk for arranging such a lovely evening last night. Around 40 of us met up for a tasty dinner at Henry Hunan's, quickly worked-off by a steep hike up Montgomery Street for a classic view of the Transamerica Pyramid. Much long exposure photography ensued. Here's one I snapped with my Panasonic GX1 and Leica 25mm lens (50mm equivalent). It's a ten second exposure at f8 and the base 160 ISO of the camera.

It was hard enough to hike up there with my light Micro Four Thirds kit, so maximum respect goes to +Peter Adams who lugged up a set of flashlights and batteries for an excellent group shot which you'll also see in various streams! I'm looking forward to seeing those jumping portraits Peter!

I was also flattered to have my portrait taken by +Daniel Krieger who'd just shot Annie Liebovitz the night before - looking forward to seeing that too!

It was fun evening and wonderful to catch up with old friends including +Karen Hutton , +Sam Breach , +Julia Peterson , +Faran Najafi , +Chris Chabot , +Swee Oh  and to meet many new ones including +Barry Blanchard , +Ricardo Lagos , +Alexis Coram , +Bryan Nabong , +Suzanne Haggerty , +Guillaume Desachy , +Andrea Ewald , +Joette A. Wangsgard , +Bill Sanders , +Todd Sipes and everyone else! Sorry if I missed any of you, or if I didn't get a chance to chat much! Looking forward to seeing many of you again on Saturday and probably around town over the next couple of weeks!

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