My artist trading card series: Abstract Forest

My friend Cindy has organized a swap of artist trading cards. An artist trading card is a small piece of art, about the size of a North American business card. Everyone involved in the swap is making 5 cards based around a theme of their choice. Participants send the cards to Cindy, who makes sets of 5 cards from different artists and sends them back. You give some cards; you get some cards.

My theme is abstract forest. All of the shots are from Pacific Spirit Park, a huge area of protected forest on the west side of Vancouver. The shots were taken with longer exposures (0.5 to 10 seconds) and involve some form of camera movement during exposure. The result is a more impressionist view of the forest.

Neon Forest
The light streaks are caused by the bright sky showing between the trees. During the 1.6 second exposure I was gently sweeping the camera. I added the colour streaks in Photoshop. I like vibrant colours and I had a lot of fun choosing which ones to use. I like how this reminds me of those cute LGBT pride flags. Vancouver and UBC have fairly diverse communities, and the Park (which is ecologically diverse) is a great resource for those people.


Cylindrical Forest
This is a 10 second exposure of a huge stump that has fallen over and had its centre rot away over time. I held the camera looking into the hollow stump and turned it a full 360 degrees during the exposure. It was tough to rotate the camera smoothly and keep it aimed at the center of the stump. I made many poor attempts before lucking out with this one. The result appears a bit sinister, but I think it has a subtle message of optimism. If nothing else, the austere title should lighten the mood :)


Dream Forest
My strategy for this shot was similar to Neon Forest above except I moved the camera in a much more chaotic way, still gently, but less linear. You can see the swirls that were created during the 1.3 second exposure. I spent some time in Photoshop adding some green and red tones to give it more of a forest feeling. I love how the forms, which were created by many trees moving in front of the lens, again resemble trees. I’m not sure that this should come as a surprise, but from my many shots this is the only one that retained strong elements of forest shapes.


Imposing Forest
Even though I couldn’t feel it in the thick of the forest, the wind was quite strong and the tree tops were swaying considerably. I wanted to capture that motion but the result wasn’t very dramatic. I decided to spice things up a bit by zooming the lens during the exposure. Luckily I had my tripod which made it a bit easier to zoom the lens smoothly during the one second exposure. The trees in Pacific Spirit Park are huge! Many people use the park for exercise, running or biking through, focusing on avoiding roots and each other. When you do take a breather and look up it’s awe-inspiring.


Vertical Forest
At half a second this is the shortest of the exposures. It was necessary to maintain crisp straight lines. My original shot is only half of what is seen, I mirrored it to create this image. The light breaking through the tree trunks provides a stark contrast to the darkness of the forest. I had to move the camera as steadily as my hands would allow, and ensure that I was moving before and after the shutter, in order to capture the lines as cleanly as you see here. The curve in the lines is due to the wide-angle lens.

Please provide any critique you wish in the comment section. I appreciate any feed back, negative or positive.

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Lightroom tip: Histogram and the crop tool

I’ve recorded a short lightroom tip, I hope you find it useful. I show you how you can use the crop tool to see the histogram of sub-sections of your image. In my example I use this ability to determine the proper exposure for a portrait.

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Bench: a street photography series

Over the course of many days I collected images of people sitting on a bench outside of the student union building at the University of British Columbia.

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Business cards

Although business cards are potentially a good idea to help brand my work, make good impressions with people and perhaps help get some work exhibited; the real impetus behind the decision was getting to print 100 of my photos at once. I’ve ordered from the well-known Moo. If you haven’t heard Moo cards are all the rage, the company has done a great job designing a sleek product line aimed squarely at the masses of casual digital photographers. I’m excited to see my cards but I have to wait another couple of weeks.

Here’s the design of the front of the card:

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Rock and Rolling with Shawn

These shots are from a recent studio lighting session for my Practical Lighting course. We started with a single bare light source and gradually added elements to the set. The exercise is meant to reinforce the importance of building a set piece-by-piece to fully understand all it’s elements. This will help you recognize and isolate problems as they arise.

We worked with the same model throughout. I met Shawn last semester and had a couple of opportunities to work with him, it was nice to see him again. Having worked together before definitely made the session a little less stressful and more comfortable, but some of that may be due to my improvement. I had brought an acoustic guitar as a prop. It turns out Shawn plays the guitar, however he’s left-handed so he couldn’t actually play my guitar.

Shot #1:
This first shot was with a bare bulb. The light is on the left at about eye-level, also known as hatchet lighting since you can chop your subject’s face in half with it.

With so many things to think about it can be hard to get everything right and this photo is a great example of that. I would have liked the guitar to be rotated a bit more toward the camera so that the shadow from his head doesn’t hit it so much (or at all). Even more importantly I would have moved him forward a bit, or shot a bit more from the right to avoid the shadow hitting the backdrop. It looks really bad. I like the shadow of this legs but it should never have hit the wall in the back.

Shot #2:
For the second shot a softbox was put on the light. The transition from highlight to shadow becomes much more gradual since the source of light is bigger than before.

This is my favorite shot from the day. There are some stray hairs that need touch up, but other than that I wouldn’t change much about it.

Shot #3:
We added a fill light for the third shot. It was a silver circular reflector. This pushes a lot more light into the shadows reducing the overall ratio of highlights to shadows.

I had come up with this pose when I was playing around with the guitar at home. Unfortunately I had been sitting on my bed which is a lot taller than the chair we had for Shawn. This made my original idea unworkable and I clambered up on a desk and braced myself against the ceiling for this shot. I didn’t have a chance to move around, since we needed to move on, so I didn’t really get the shot I wanted here. I’m pretty happy with this one though.

Shot #4:
For the last shot we added a rim light (or hair light). It was about 2-stops brighter than our main light. I told Shawn I wanted something a bit more dynamic and he started making a lot of great rock ‘n roll faces. He was moving around quite a bit which made it hard to get all the elements in place. The rim light was a small beam because we used a snoot to direct it. Getting a shot where the rim looked perfect was a bit challenging but it worked out.

There are some weird lines on the background in this shot which must be the result of various flags casting shadows. We didn’t have the time (or experience) to get this setup to work perfectly. I really want to try this again and get it right.

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Portrait retouching

As part of my Intermediate Photography class we took natural light portraits of some models. Ideally we would have had clear skies so we could photograph outside. Of course Vancouver in October was not terribly accommodating, so most of the day was spent in the studio which has huge windows that gave very workable light. We did have some reflectors and diffusers to help but no lights or flashes.

I wanted to share a quick example of a Photoshop retouch that I did on one of the shots. In general Photoshop isn’t a part of my workflow, Lightroom is all I need the vast majority of the time. Here’s the shot out of Lightroom before I did anything in Photoshop.

The problem is the shadow on Colleen’s cheek from her nose. This is obviously my mistake, I should have noticed this at the time and done something to fix it. Having the ability to save this shot with Photoshop is great but it doubled my post-processing time for this image, so it’s not something I want to make a habit of relying on. I could have tried to bring some more fill into that region, or I could have rotated our set up around a bit so that more light was hitting the right side of her face.

In Photoshop this is a pretty easy fix. I used the clone stamp in lighten mode to boost up the shadow area. I then applied a surface blur and used the history brush to paint that blur on her face with a low opacity. Smoothing the face is flattering and it helps smooth out the clone stamping I did. Here is the result:

To help make a comparison here’s a side-by-side:

It was satisfying to see such a dramatic improvement with only a bit of Photoshopping. This technique is one I learned in the Photoshop class that I’m taking so it’s also gratifying to use some of those skills in my workflow. If you want to see more of the portraits I shot that day check out my album on flickr or facebook.

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Long exposures and star trails

I have seen very few telescopes considering that I will soon have a PhD in Astronomy, and by soon I mean not soon enough. My work has never required me to actually go to a telescope. Luckily a couple of graduate students who use a local observatory for their work often need an extra body for safety reasons while they observe. I recently joined one of them on a trip to the Large Zenith Telescope (LZT) in Pitt Meadows. I took the opportunity to make some long exposure photos of the telescope and stars. The work they do at the telescope involves shooting a powerful yellow laser straight up, which adds an interesting bit of flair to the shots, and almost makes up for the barn-like shape of the observatory.

The wavelength of the laser light matches that of electrons in the sodium atom, when the light hits the thin layer of sodium in Earth’s atmosphere it excites these electrons, ionizing the sodium. The ionized sodium quickly finds a free electron which emits a photon when it combines with the sodium ion. The telescope collects these photons and because the laser is pulsed the details of the height and density of the sodium layer can be measured. The sodium layer and how it changes with time is very important for a host of scientific fields of research. It has a practical importance in Astronomy since many telescopes depend on the sodium layer for something known as adaptive optics.

I did several exposures ranging from 40 minutes to two hours. I love turning to bulb mode and calculating the correct exposure, it’s good practice, and there’s something very deliberate and satisfying about it. The first step to calculating the correct exposure in this type of situation is to let the camera do it for you, as usual. Set your ISO to something high like 3200, don’t worry about noise, this image is needed only to calculate the correct long exposure. Set your camera to aperture selection, open up the aperture as big as it will go and see what your camera recommends for exposure time. You should be able to find a suitable exposure that’s less than 30 seconds. I find that setting the exposure compensation to +1 or even +2 gives a nice result (I shoot with center-weighted metering).

For example my test shot for the above photo suggested the following settings:
ISO 3200, f/4.0 – 1/3 stop, 13 seconds

I use 1/3 stop increments on my Canon 7D but I don’t like to think about them so I reference them by their relation to the full stop increments. So f/3.5 becomes f/4.0 – 1/3 stop (or f/2.8 + 2/3 stop). Long exposures should always be done at ISO 100 since they are low light shots and are going to have enough trouble with noise. So right away I know that I want to calculate the equivalent exposure for ISO 100.

Stops are factors of 2 for ISO so we have to find out how many consecutive divisions by 2 will get us from 3200 to 100. The sequence is 3200, 1600, 800, 400, 200, 100. So by changing to ISO 100 we’re removing 5 stops of exposure. To get an equivalent exposure we must add this amount to the shutter speed. That is the shutter speed must allow 5 stops more light to enter. Again we can use factors of 2, the sequence this time is 13s, 30s, 1min, 2min, 4min, 8min. I rounded 26 to 30 since it’s only a 1/3 stop shift which won’t make that much of a difference to the shot but makes the math a lot easier. Okay so our equivalent exposure is: ISO 100, f/4.0 – 1/3 stop, 8 min

I wanted a longer exposure so I also changed the aperture to f/11 – 1/3, which is an additional 3 stops. The aperture scale changes by factors of sqrt(2), which is cute but multiplying by 1.414 is not that much fun to do in your head so I suggest just memorizing that scale. The additional 3 stops of exposure time gave me an hour long exposure, perfect for long star trails: ISO 100, f/11 – 1/3 stop, 60 min

You can see the glow from the city at the bottom of this shot. The sign on the door reads “DANGER MERCURY do not enter”. The mercury is liquid but it does evaporate and mercury fumes are lethal. Once the rooftop has been open for a while the concentration of mercury vapor is acceptably low to enter without gas masks. The telescope does not have a conventional glass mirror instead it spins up a small amount of liquid mercury which naturally forms the shape of a parabola. Mercury is highly reflective and makes a very good mirror. This is cheaper then shaping a piece of glass to the type of precision needed for Astronomy. The downside is the telescope can only point straight up, that’s why it’s called a Zenith Telescope.

This last image is a two hour exposure, you can see that the star trails are longer than in the previous shots which were all around an hour long. The shots which include the building were taken on a night with a nearly full moon. The moon is very bright and this allowed me to capture the building as well as the stars, but the moon also makes the night sky bright meaning you see less stars and they don’t seem to shine as brightly. The second shot above was on a different night after the moon had set, the sky is very dark in that shot and many faint stars are visible.

A last bit of advice if you’re doing these types of shots is to turn on long exposure noise reduction. There are many hot pixels that glow bright red, green or blue when the sensor is used continuously. Having the camera measure and remove these will make your life a lot easier. The camera will take a second exposure of the same length and use it to remove these hot pixels from your exposure. This is known as dark frame subtraction, a technique that’s also used in astronomy. Unfortunately this means that your camera is busy taking a dark frame. For example, I started my two hour exposure at 1:30am the exposure was done at 3:12am but I had to wait until 5:00am for the dark frame to be done. So that one shot took four and a half hours!

You can take your own dark frame at another time, but it’s crucial that the ambient temperature be the same. This is also why it’s important not to take the camera inside while it’s calculating the dark frame. With higher temperatures there is more thermal noise and more hot pixels. You could also take one dark frame for the entire night if you’re willing to stick to approximately the same length of exposure. I haven’t tried doing this myself in Photoshop, but I’m guessing that the camera algorithms are doing a better job than I could. However, if you were planning on doing a lot of long exposure photography you would probably want to learn how to do your own dark frame subtraction.

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