Category Archives: Hands

The category, Hands, is for posts that make us skilled.

Get Nik Efex For Free

I guess it’s old news now, but last week Google announced that it would no longer charge its usual $149 for the Nik Collection of image-editing plugins. Now, you can download it for free. Personally, I ignore most plugins because the effects they produce tend to be cheesy. They’re one-off novelties that lose their interest almost as fast as a Rob Ford funeral. However, I do like to play with black and white conversion tools. So I downloaded the collection and applied the Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin to a few images. Here are three samples, each using a different effect:

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The first image comes from the Yonge/Dundas intersection. As far as I know, the intersection is one of only two remaining all-way crossings in Toronto. I managed to capture three people moving in three different directions, all moving outward from the centre of the street. The woman in the centre is staring directly at me as she approaches. I think it’s a photo that probably works better in a large format, maybe a 16×24 print. I applied the “fine art” setting in Silver Efex.

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I shot the second image at a crosswalk on Sherbourne Street after an April snowstorm. In keeping with the wet, reflective asphalt, I applied the “wet rocks” filter.

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The third image comes from the intersection of Bloor and Sherbourne where there’s always a long lineup to catch the 75 bus downtown. I liked the dissonance of the smiling effusive ad face against all the gloomy people in their dark coats waiting to board the bus. I applied the “low key” setting.

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The Travel Paradox

The love of my life and I have an idiosyncratic argument that plays out all too often, but especially when we’re traveling.

Me: Stop walking so fast.

Her: Walking has no health benefits if you don’t walk fast.

Me: I’m not walking for health benefits.

Her: No, you’re walking because you’re a pervert.

Me: You keep walking into my frame.

Her: People will think you’re a creep the way you point your camera at them.

Me: I can’t very well take their photo if I don’t point my camera at them. And I can’t point my camera at them if you’re in the way.

So I end up with a lot of photos of my wife as a blurred figure through what could have been an interesting street scene.

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I recently attended a talk by the maritime photographer, Kas Stone, during which she mentioned in passing the so-called travel paradox. Most photographers share the experience of traveling to outstanding or exotic locations only to return home with images that are meh at best. There may be a number of reasons for this but one, she speculates, is that we travel with (typically) non-photographer companions who cramp our style. It’s not really that they cramp our style so much as that their presence injects guilt-laden mind games into our process. Here we are, doing what we love. There they are, in this amazing locale, waiting patiently for us and doing their best to mask their boredom. We feel guilty. We rush so we can move on to things our companions will enjoy. In our haste, we compromise our process and end up with crappy photos.

I’ve developed a couple workarounds. The first is to arrange my travel on the coattails of my wife’s working trips. That way, while she’s spending weekdays in an office, I’m free to wander alone. We meet for dinner at the end of the day and spend our evenings together. I don’t feel guilty about doing whatever I need to do to get my shot. And she doesn’t feel guilty telling me she’s impatient because she’s already given me scads of time on my own.

Bench and Lily Pond at ArtScience Museum, Singapore

Bench and Lily Pond – no wife within miles

But not all our time is divided. For the time we are together and (naturally) I still insist on shooting, I have a second workaround. I restrict myself to street photography. Not the street photography that frames a scene and watches patiently as people pass through the frame. But the street photography that responds to the immediacy of the pageant that continually unfolds in public spaces. Because it demands split-second responses, it doesn’t tax anyone’s patience. It becomes a game. How good a shot can I get with less than a second to compose it?

Orchard Road, Singapore

Woman Shopping for Skirts, Orchard Road, Singapore

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Getting Made

Getting Made is that magic moment when you discover that despite your best efforts to maintain your cover as you photograph in the street, the people in your frame know exactly what you’re doing. Typically, that magic moment doesn’t happen until post-processing when you’re taking a close look at your images and you see how the eyes stare directly at your camera. They made you. The image no longer qualifies as a candid shot. It has been “tainted” by a self-conscious gaze.

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The curious thing is that nobody cares. When you read posts by street photographers, it seems universally the case that they approach their craft, at least in the beginning, with a heightened sense of anxiety. What if someone catches me taking their picture? Will they get angry? Will they think I’m a pervert? Will they beat me up? Experience quickly demonstrates that this anxiety is unfounded.

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1. Most people who stare at your camera are thinking: Oh look, there’s someone with a camera. It doesn’t necessarily occur to them that you’re actually using it, especially if you’re not looking through the viewfinder when they see you.

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2. Even if the person thinks “Oh look, there’s someone with a camera and he’s actually using it” they rarely think you’re a pervert because that would mean they were somehow participating in the perversion (e.g. flashing you as you take the picture). They know they’re not doing anything perverted, so the photo must be okay.

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3. People are generally flattered that you find them interesting enough to photograph. What’s more, in the self-absorbed social media culture that marks our times, playing to the lens is the norm.

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4. Even when people don’t want to be in your photo, so what? If they don’t like it, they can turn their faces the other way. The fact is: in a public space, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. In the street, the law favours the camera.

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(Afterword: I don’t want to come off as too cavalier about #4. I don’t think a photographer has an absolute entitlement in public spaces. Sometimes ethical considerations about the exploitation of vulnerable persons and respect for personal dignity have to trump. I’m also cognizant of the fact that as a white middle-aged male I can, like Rob Ford, pretty much do anything I want without consequences.)

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Playing with MacPhun Software

I recently bought a suite of photo “enhancement” apps from MacPhun. I use the word enhancement in quotes because I feel conflicted about such tools. They make it easy to inflict an endless array of cheesy effects on unsuspecting photos.

The “to app or not to app” debate reminds me of an episode from the novel, Diva, by Delacorta (Daniel Odier), which also appears as a scene in the movie of the same name. The opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins, is giving a statement to the press when a reporter asks why she refuses to record her performances. She answers that the performance is a special moment which a recording can never capture. She then mentions Glenn Gould by way of contrast. Gould famously refused to perform and devoted himself, instead, to the post-production process.

A analogous debate has raged in the world of photography since the discovery that film negatives could be manipulated. But what was once an esoteric art practised by a handful of darkroom geeks is now accessible to anyone who owns a smart phone. And so the debate has gained new force. Purists insist that everything rests on the process; their aim is a Platonic photograph captured fully formed in camera without the need for post-processing manipulation. The rest of us aren’t so skillful or we’re lazy or we like to play with all the latest digital tools. We draw an analogy to Glenn Gould and wonder: if the object is to produce a compelling image, what difference does it make which process we use to create the image?

My position in this debate? I begin with the observation that recent developments in camera technology make photography almost idiot proof. Auto-focus has become blazingly fast. In fact, it’s possible to dispense with focus altogether. The Lytro Illum allows you to take your photo and decide what to pull into focus after the fact. Add to that the proposed technology that would allow you to take perfect HDR images every time, and it becomes impossible to take a technically bad photo. Stripped of technical challenges, all that remains for photography are creative challenges. Composition and post-processing.

Maybe purists will insist on using old cameras so they can claim bragging rights for all the technical challenges they’ve overcome. But for those who adopt new tools and still want to call themselves purists, all that remains to them of creativity in the process is composition. Personally, I find that unnecessarily limiting. I like to play.

With a name like MacPhun, you get the feeling this app developer panders to people who like to play (especially if they are Mac users). Each of the tools in the suite can function as a plugin in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Although they aren’t non-destructive editing tools as you’d find in Lightroom, they get around this problem by automatically making a copy of your image source file and editing the copy instead. (The downside of this is that a copy in .tif format of a 50 megapixel image can be as large as 250 Mb and I begrudge the space.)

What follows are before and after shots to illustrate some MacPhun possibilities using 4 of the 5 tools. (The 5th is SnapHeal Pro which you don’t need if you have Photoshop but would be useful for people using other image editing software.)

First, let’s play with Tonality Pro, an app for conversion to black and white. To illustrate, here’s a shot of a horse eating grass framed by another horse eating grass. It’s compositionally interesting, but not a great shot because I was facing the technical challenge of shooting into the shadow side of a dark subject. But convert it black and white and use the handy slider to reduce the shadow and the result is vastly improved.

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Next are a couple samples using Focus Pro. In the first, I apply a tilt-shift effect to a rooftop scene in Paris. In a way, Focus Pro allows you to simulate the Lytro Illum camera. If you shoot with a small enough aperture so that most of the image is in focus, then that gives you a lot to play with in post-processing. In this case, I angled the plane of the tilt from bottom left third to top right corner. It produces the “toy town” effect, especially in the trees, that is characteristic of tilt shift lenses.

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I used Focus Pro to try a different effect with an image I took last weekend at Toronto’s Buskerfest. I mask the woman in the foreground, then give everything else a motion blur. Again, what makes it work is the fact that I shot the source image with a narrow aperture – f/11 – so I could start with most everything in focus.

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Intensify Pro is probably the most dangerous of the apps because it’s the one with all the cheesy HDR possibilities. Use with moderation. I’ve applied a moderate “punch” to a photo I took during this year’s Pride celebrations. It brings out the colours in the umbrellas and their reflections in the wet pavement. Too much? Maybe. The app also allows for black and white conversion.

Boys Holding Hands

Boys Holding Hands

Finally, a sample using Noiseless Pro, a tool for reducing (or increasing) noise. I shot these fireworks from Ward Island across the Toronto Harbour at the end of the PanAm Games. I was shooting at ISO 1250. (Despite Canon’s advertising, I find the 5DS doesn’t handle low light as well as other DSLRs, not even as well as the Mark III.) I reduce the noise in the sky, then use Intensify Pro to give the colours some punch.

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Bottom line: it’s a decent suite and works effectively (and efficiently) as a plugin to Adobe products. If you have self-control, it can be applied to make subtle enhancements to your images.

You may not need the full suite. SnapHeal seems unnecessary. There are black and white conversion and de-noisifying tools in Intensify Pro so you can probably dispense with Tonality Pro and Noiseless Pro. All the apps are available on a trial basis, so you can judge based on your own needs.

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Canon 5DS Sample Images

It seems everyone who has their hands on a 5DS has been posting samples so people can download giant image files (50 megapixels) to see how giant an image file can get. I’ll offer a couple images here (just to get it out of my system), then side step the whole giant image thing which, after all, is nothing more than a photographic pissing contest.

Here you go. Image #1 is an early morning shot of Toronto’s skyline as viewed from Governor’s Hill overlooking the Evergreen Brickworks. I used a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. ISO 100, f 8.0, 1/60.

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I’ve also attached a 564 x 846 pixel swatch from the above image so you can see the level of detail possible when an image is viewed at %100 resolution on a monitor.

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A few things are immediately apparent. First, if you inspect photos at %100 on a computer monitor, you’ll end up thinking most of your images are garbage. Even the slightest shake produces blurred pixels. The old rule about minimum shutter speed (i.e. for hand-held shooting, your minimum shutter speed should be the inverse of your focal length) gets tossed out the window. With a 50 megapixel sensor, clarity on a pixel by pixel basis is impossible without a good tripod. That said, when you DO achieve that level of clarity, the result is amazingly crisp. After my first day out with the 5DS, I was getting images that pop in a way I’ve never been able to achieve with my Mark III. Download a full size (8688 x 5792) jpg here.

Image #2 is a graffiti-covered trestle that crosses the Don River. I used the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM at 70mm. ISO 100, f/11, 1/50. Download a full size jpg here.

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The second thing that is immediately apparent is that images become grainier at lower ISO settings than with the Mark III. Maximum ISO on the 5DS is 12800 whereas on the Mark III it’s 102400. Simply put: the 5DS doesn’t perform well in low light. That’s another argument for using a tripod. For best results, shoot in the ISO 100-400 range and slow everything down.

Now let’s side step that pissing contest. One of the great advantages of the 5DS is NOT the size of the image it produces, but the huge amount of play it offers in terms of cropability (is that even a word?). If you’re a purist who believes everything should happen in camera, then you may want to ignore everything else in this post. But if you believe it’s okay sometimes to reserve framing and composition considerations until post production, then read on. The 5DS is your friend.

Take my 3rd image as an example:

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I shot this hand held with Canon’s EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/80. Because damselflies are easily spooked, I stood back a discreet distance & subsequently cropped the image to 5760 x 3840. The reason for those dimensions is that they are identical to the Mark III’s maximum image size. I simply wanted to demonstrate that I can sacrifice nearly 60% of the image and still end up with something printable to the size of a large painting.

Here’s a more extreme example:

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Also shot hand held with the Macro lens, I’ve cropped this fly to 3093 x 2062. While the resulting image can’t fill a wall (& who would want it to?) nevertheless, I could print it at a high quality resolution on a letter-sized sheet of paper.

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7 (non-photographic) things you can do to improve your photography

The following are suggestions (not prescriptions) and are highly personal. They reflect what I would describe as an emerging philosophy of seeing and engagement with the world. In particular, I preach a holistic gospel of photography: photography works in service of the whole person. For that reason, the whole person needs to be enlisted in the service of photographic practice. That’s why seemingly irrelevant activities might benefit, and even improve, your photography.

1. Meditate

By meditation, I don’t mean that you should embark on an elaborate pilgrimage to a Tibetan monastery. I mean something simpler. Breathing. Mindfulness. The work of becoming awake. The discipline of meditation can provide the foundations for a discipline of seeing. You walk down a street and are more alive to the visual possibilities that present themselves. You may have walked down the same street a hundred times, but because you have become habituated to that walk, you cease to notice the wonder of its particularity. It’s as if you are sleepwalking. The thisness of its place and time have vanished. Wake up!

Time to wake up!

Time to wake up!

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Wildlife As Street Photography Training

I forgot to post some images from my recent trip to Florida. I don’t regard myself as a nature or wildlife photographer. For one thing, I don’t have the proper equipment for it, namely a fast long lens. Maybe one day when I have an extra couple of mil to drop, I’ll pick up that 1600 mm lens I’ve been hankering for. In the meantime, I make do with my 70-200 mm lens with 2X extender. For another thing, I live in downtown Toronto and so most of my photo opportunities (and my love) belong to urban spaces. Nevertheless, one kind of photography doesn’t preclude the other. And skills applied in one are transferable to the other.

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For example, in the cases of both wildlife and street photography, the aim is to capture a dramatic moment, something in process, a narrative. It isn’t good enough to shoot a bird on a branch and offer it as an instance of a pretty bird on a branch. The pretty bird on the branch has to be doing something. In the same way, it isn’t good enough to shoot a static picture of a person staring at the lens like the subject of a 19th century portrait. The person has to be engaged (and engage us) in something more.

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In both kinds of photography, capturing that dramatic moment means that you have to be on edge. At any second, the drama may present itself and you have to be ready for it. The heron may lunge. The man may shake his fist.

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As a corollary, both kinds of photography produce a lot of garbage. Wildlife and people (especially children) move around a lot. They’re unpredictable. You may shoot a series in continuous mode, a rapid burst that gives you nothing, one decent shot if you’re lucky. You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that your one success will be ushered in on a thousand failures.

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There are differences, of course. In street photography, there are conventions that, for practical reasons, haven’t caught hold with wildlife. One is the tendency to work exclusively in black and white. In wildlife photography, colour is often the point and converting to black and white would only undermine the work. Also, street purists frown on those who use anything longer than a 50 mm lens; you have to get in close and personal. In wildlife photography, that simply isn’t possible, especially if you’re shooting alligators or rattle snakes. Well, it’s possible, if you don’t mind putting an abrupt end to your career.

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Yes You Can Break A Carbon Fiber Tripod

Another gear mishap. The last time was a lens dropped on gravel with a scratch that rendered it unusable. This time, it was a broken tripod. On Monday, I was up to my wazoo in snow as I tramped through the sugar bush at Williams Farm (see yesterday’s photos). I was trying to get early morning shots of sap lines through the trees. The problem with setting up a tripod in snow is that it’s hard to find a stable base. That problem is compounded late in the season by the fact that the snow is dense and compacted. I was ramming my tripod through the crusty layers to find the ground. But once I hit the ground, I couldn’t open the legs. So I tried ramming the tripod into the snow with the legs slightly apart. The idea was that, as I shoved the tripod down, the legs would splay further into an open position. Seemed like a good idea. I shoved down and heard a loud crack like a branch or a bone breaking, but the only pain I felt was in my hip near my wallet. One of the legs had cracked lengthwise along the grain of the fiber.

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A couple takeaways from this experience:

1) When the salesperson tells you your carbon fiber tripod will be the last tripod you buy, don’t believe them (unless you’re really dainty with your gear).

2) When shooting in snow, don’t be impatient. Spend some time tamping the snow down with your boots before setting up your tripod.

3) Always have some duct tape on hand. I could still have gotten a few shots if I’d had some duct tape in my pack.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I replaced it the next day with the same tripod – a Manfrotto O55. It’s an awesome piece of gear.

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Shooting Into The Light

The rule of thumb is: shoot with the sun to your back. It’s a good rule. It means your subjects are well lit and your colours are more saturated. You don’t have weird lens flares or washed out subjects. And yet, sometimes, rules need to be broken. For one thing, if your shooting is determined by a few simple rules, one image will start to look like all your others. Here are a few shots I took into the sun just to change things up.

The first shot is kind of a cliché. It’s the steeple of the San Francisco de Asis Mission in Taos, New Mexico. I was going for all the flare I could get. (Tip: don’t use your view-finder when you point at the sun or your could damage your eyes. Set up your shot using the LCD screen.)

San Francisco de Asis Mission

I took the next shot facing west from St. James Cemetery in the late afternoon. I held my hand above the lens hood. The shadow of my hand reduced the glare.

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Competition Results

I’m a relatively new member of the Toronto Camera Club which has been operating continuously since 1889 and is one of the larger camera clubs around. There are advantages to being big. One is that it draws decent speakers for its lecture series. Another is that there is a large pool for its internal competitions. A lot of the members are really good which pushes people like me to work at improving our craft. The last competition was in the Assigned Topics category. This time, the assigned topics were Food and Night in the City. I submitted four shots to the Night in the City topic. Two did well. Two, not so well. As long as I sometimes get positive feedback and feel that, overall, I’m making progress, I don’t mind being told that a particular shot is lousy. It motivates me to work harder.

Here are the shots that did well. The first is one of the new TTC streetcars running on Spadina Avenue, Toronto. The second is of the spotlights shining off the Eiffel Tower.

Streetcar on Spadina Avenue

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