Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Raptors

Winter is a good time to find raptors on the hunt in New Mexico. After a visit with family near Albuquerque, exploring a few new counties in the north east quadrant of the "Land of Enchantment" promised the possibility of new landscapes and maybe some bird photography. Tucumcari is in Quay county and north of Quay is Harding county where we find the metropolis of Roy which is surrounded by the Kiowa National Grassland. There are a few lakes in the area, Ute Lake and Conchas Lake being the largest. Lakes often harbor migratory birds and the grasslands nourish large numbers of rodents that forage all winter and they, in turn, attract raptors.

A visit to Ute Lake at sunrise found the lake covered with fog that slowly burned off as the day progressed. Wind frost coated the bushes at the edge of the lake and the honking of Canada geese echoed over the water.

Waiting on the shore for a while was rewarded with a good view of many groups of Canada geese flying out of the lake on their way to forage for breakfast.

Driving to Roy revealed that none of the towns along that route north of Logan have much to offer in the way of lodging, gas stations, or eating establishments although there are the bare minimum (one gas station and one restaurant open in Roy). A trip along NM state route 120 west from Roy led to the Canadian River Valley (about 600 feet deep) where the Canadian river was found to have ice on it but wasn't particularly photogenic, at least not in this photographers opinion. The surrounding grasslands seem to be mostly grazing lands and would perhaps be more attractive in summer. However the raptors were everywhere, particularly the hawks and kestrels. About every quarter mile along the road there would be a hawk on a utility pole or a kestrel on a wire. More rare were great horned owls and I didn't see any eagles.

The raptors were successful, I watched an American kestrel catch and eat some kind of rodent. A closer shot would have improved the image but this guy didn't trust the photographer enough to let him get too close. As ever, click on an image to see a larger version.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Grab Portraiture Learning Curve

As Bogart famously remarked, "Here's looking at you, kid". Photographs containing people and animals hold a particular interest for us. This is specially true when the the subject is looking at the camera.

Finding that I like to shoot candid portraits has meant learning more about color correction. For example, in the image below the photo was taken very quickly (a few seconds at the office Christmas party) in an environment where the lighting was a combination of tungsten lights, two kinds of fluorescent lights, and a large north facing window on a blue sky day. Here is what the jpeg looks like right out of the camera (set on auto color balance):

Anna's face is too blue on one side and too yellow on the other and the exposure (set to aperture priority auto exposure) is a bit dark. Correcting the overall image (raw file) color balance didn't give me a satisfying result so masks were necessary to correct some areas of the image differently from other areas (mostly on the face). The color of a human face, and a very young human face in this example, is a challenge because of the subtle shading and the curves that give shadows and highlights which are often illuminated by different light sources. I can see why portraits are usually made in a studio where the light is carefully controlled. After correcting the color as best I could and working on her eyes a little (brightness, contrast, saturaton) and the overall brightness and contrast of the image, the result is more pleasing, at least to this photographer (oh yes, I fixed the mark on her face too):

Other situations are a little easier, color wise, but the time element can be another obstacle to getting the shot. This example was taken outside on an overcast day (single light source). The young lady below had just gotten her face painted at the 4th avenue street fair this last Sunday. I asked her if I could take her photograph, she said "yes", looked at me for about two seconds, and then went back to talking with her friends. I got two frames but in the second one she was already turning away. Again, spending an hour in a studio makes a lot of sense to get the composition right.

This is one of the things that draws me to photography, learning how to do things better and better. For years, black and white was the medium I learned about, exposure, contrast, focus, and depth of field were important but color balance wasn't a consideration.

Both photographs taken with Canon 5D mk II and Canon 135mm f/2 lens. Both images taken at f/2.8. As ever, click on the images to see larger versions.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

San Pedro Owl

I wanted to get out of town this weekend but various issues at work conspired to keep me from getting out early as planned. However, this time of year I don't have to go far to find something interesting and weather that I enjoy. In the summer, longer treks are needed to find nice weather (I like coooool!) and the sun is high in the sky making the light harsh most of the day. In the winter, we have excellent weather in the Tucson area and the sun is lower in the sky.

Various birds winter in the area along the San Pedro river, not far from here, and the rain we had earlier in the week promised the possibility of more water. Hunting for birds with my camera is great fun so I headed down to the Fairbank crossing, east of Ft. Huachuca, south-east of Tucson. The parking area at Fairbank is a nice place to park while exploring along the San Pedro but the authorities now have a gate they lock at dusk which isn't good for photographers because we often get back to the car after dark when out photographing at sunset.  Fortunately, on the west side of the bridge, there are a couple of wide areas were one can pull off the road without the threat of being stranded. I parked in one of these and wandered down to the river.

Hiking north, down river, I hadn't gone very far when a suspicious lump in one of the trees got my attention. A 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter on a 1.6 crop camera body gave me quite good magnification and I found that the lump was a great horned owl relaxing in a shady area of the tree. After taking a few shots from where I was, (the bird was small in the viewfinder and backlit by the setting sun), I approached in a zig-zag fashion, never moving straight toward the bird and took a few frames each time I stopped. Still the bird was backlit and the images were poor. Finally, when I was quite close, he spread his wings and nonchalantly flew to another tree.

He was still backlit in his new location. Again I approached cautiously, and got a few more images before he took off again and flew to the other side of the river.  Fortunately, the river isn't very deep and I had my waterproof hiking boots on so I waded across and approached again.  This time he was situated with better light on his front side and I got some better images. Click on the images to see the larger versions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Depth of Field, San Xavier

I bought a new camera lens recently, a 135mm f/2 Canon lens. This will be my new portrait lens on my full frame camera body. Saturday, I wanted to try out the lens but I got a late start so I couldn't go far and decided to go to one of my favorite local places for photographs, the mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson.

Built between 1783 and 1797, the church is one of the older structures in the area and, being a plastered adobe and rock structure, is under constant maintenance and restoration.  Currently, there is no scaffolding on the outside of the church. The interior, having undergone recent restoration, is now in excellent condition.

I've always been drawn to the mortuary chapel at San Xavier where visitors light votive candles, say prayers to Our Lady of Sorrows (Virgin Mary), and make devotional offerings. I took a few photographs in the chapel experimenting with the shallow depth of field I get with my lens set wide open at f/2.  The short telephoto focal length also compresses depth a bit giving me the ability to pick out one statue from a group of small statues (ISO 200, 1/10 sec.).  Click on images for larger versions.

Outside the church, it was a fairly cloudy day and I shot various images of the church and grounds, as well as some images from "Grotto Hill" east of the mission. One of my favorite areas from which to shoot the crosses on top of the church is the back, or north side. Here there is a multi-arched entry through which I get a good view of the main dome of the church with the front bell towers behind. On this evening I noticed some mourning doves sitting on a metal arch in the garden area. I photographed them with the church behind but set my aperture to f/2.8 to throw the background out of focus and emphasize the birds (ISO 200, 1/160 sec.).

Later that evening, as the sun set, the clouds really lit up with orange and red light.  I went up on Grotto Hill and shot the church against the sunset, although now I stopped down the aperture to f/11 to keep focus throughout the scene (ISO 200, 1/5 sec.).

Friday, December 4, 2009

Variations on a Cat

Last night I had a meeting of the Transit on the Move liaison committee, which is working on the streetcar system we are building in Tucson. The meeting was held downtown at 5:30 PM so, because I'm adverse to driving in Tucson traffic between 5 PM and 5:30 PM, I went down a bit early and had some time on my hands. I almost always have my camera with me these days, you never know when something interesting will pop up. Since I was in the area of the Tucson "Arts District", where I know there are a number of interesting old buildings and the time of day was near sunset, I went for a short walk around the area to see if I could see anything of which to make an image.

I photographed a couple of interesting doorways and a couple of old buildings. As I walked I saw a number of house cats walking around. When I see them I always make a little "pshh, pshhhh" sound with my mouth which makes them look at me. These were all very relaxed cats, in no particular hurry to get anywhere. Finally, I was taking a picture of a large group of starlings sitting on utility wires when I saw a large cat comfortably sitting on the corner of a 5 foot fence. This cat meowed at me and was at eye level, so I went over and scratched it behind the ears and it was purring a bit. A very content cat. I had my 5d mk II with an 85mm f/1.8 lens which is almost perfect for portraits so I made a few images of the, very cooperative, cat.

This lens' close focusing ability is somewhat limited on a full frame camera for portraits of small things. I can't fill the frame with the head of a baby or head of a cat, it just won't focus close enough. On an APS-C sensor camera it is a different story and I find it great for head shots. I have a 135mm f/2 on order! Anyway, I did my best with the cat. I was shooting wide open at f/1.8 so my depth of field at closest focus was probably about a third of an inch, I had to focus as best I could on the cat's eyes and let the rest of the image go soft (except for a few whiskers that crossed the focal plane). As ever, click on the image to see a larger version.

I was playing around with the images and, as part of my post processing, I always sharpen the image a little. When I sharpen, I put the image into "Lab" colorspace, select the "brightness" channel, sharpen that, and then return the image to "RGB" colorspace. One of the side effects of this workflow is that I get to preview the image in black and white. When I started this cat processing, I didn't think black and white would be a good treatment for the cat because I liked the yellow color of the cat's eyes and the sprinkling of reddish fur in the cat's fur coat. However, when I had one of the images in Lab colorspace for sharpening, I liked the emphasis on textures and shapes I saw in the B&W version. I picked an image that had good sharpness on the cat's eyes and whiskers, and made this black and white portrait of the kitty.

Too bad I'm slightly allergic to cats, they make good photographic subjects!