Photography and COVID-Times

I feel that I’m a photographer who takes most of my personal favourite shots when outside of my normal day-to-day life. This can include travel, concerts and events, or getting up close and personal with new people. Now that we’re living in greater isolation and travel is a no-no I’ve been forced to adjust. Now I’m not saying that Jenny and I are living as shut-ins. We get out for walks and bike rides, the occasional distanced family visit or patio drink or meal. But we’ve left our 30km radius just twice since March.

It’s wild to think that I’ll go over a year without a real trip. The last two places I visited were the Bay Area and Barcelona (and I’m grateful to have seen both, one now ravaged by fire and the other COVID-19).

So, where does that leave me? How do I get artistic satisfaction from a limited scope while remaining socially responsible? Here’s what I’m trying so far, accompanied by photos taken during these strange Quarantimes:

Getting out of the house and taking the camera everywhere I go

First off, if I go out for a walk or bike ride I bring a camera. As much as possible it’s around my neck instead of stuffed in a bag. I usually simplify to just one body and lens. The X100F has been ideal for this because it doesn’t weigh me down and has the right ergonomics and response to quickly snap a good shot but also the control to encourage me to take my time to get an even better one.

Trying different media or styles

To be honest, I have too much gear. Two DSLRs and the X100F are already enough but then I have three film bodies in rotation as well, including condiment shelf in the fridge full of expired film. When getting out I try to mix it up, sometimes bringing just a film body, other time visualizing in black and white or other colour profiles.

Stepping out of my comfort zone can inspire creativity. Often I don’t get a good result but that’s not the point because the playing around makes me happy and inspires me to keep shooting. My goal for the late autumn and winter is to switch to black and white entirely, or at the very least to envision every shot in black and white first and only switch to colour if it’s a significant improvement.

Frequent returns to the same places

I have a few go-to places in the region that I return to many times a year, especially now that I’m not travelling far. Schneider’s Bush, Health Valley Trail are quick to get to by car and Breithaupt Park is a short walk away. I love seeing how the scenery changes from month-to-month, day-to-day or even hour-to-hour.

A benefit to revisiting the same spots is that I can plan for the future. Certain scenes look ok at the present time but have great potential to be stunning with the right conditions. Take the photo above for example. I’ve walked that part of the Health Valley Trail dozens of times but finally I decided to come at sunset. I rushed to exactly this spot, a 15 minute walk from the car, because I knew it would give me something beautiful if the sky panned out (which it did).

Photography by bicycle

I dabbled in this just a bit this year but I want to start cycling to local photography destinations by default instead of driving. There are many benefits, besides health, to getting around by bike with a camera. For starters, the journey becomes equally as important as the destination. Combining road and trail provides new views on familiar things and the process of stopping a bike and shooting is a lot more efficient then parking a car and hauling out gear.

Our city has invested hugely in cycling infrastructure lately and since COVID came has separated off lanes of major roads for bikes, opening up many new routes to get around. More people should be taking advantage of this opportunity!

My longer term goal will be to set up a lightweight cycling photography kit, either using a handlebar bag or trunk bag or combination of both. In either case it will need to be incredibly durable and well padded so that if I drop the bike I won’t damage any gear. I’d love to be able to leave the house for an all-day photography ride, with a little camera kit and lunch and a coffee. My X100f would be perfect but maybe the D750 with the super light 24, 50, 85 f/1.8 lenses and the little Manfrotto Befree would work too. I’ll keep everybody posted!

People are dealing with COVID-19 in many different ways. These are a few of the ways I’ve coped with having my photographic scope limited but I’d love to hear if any of you have other suggestions.

A Review of 2019

Well, 2019 is over in a few hours and I thought it would be a good time to share a few of my favourites from the year. Photographically it was a very good year. I took a big step back from taking photos for other people yet I still took about 12000 shots, the majority being self-motivated.

Jenny and I had two trips, to Cuba in February and Spain in November. For both of these trips I brought the lightest kit I could… the X100S to Cuba and my new X100F to Spain. I brought the WCL and TCL adapters as well and made pretty heavy use of the former.

Speaking of the X100 cameras, more of my favourites were with those bodies than my two Nikons (D750 and D810) combined. That says as much about the “bring everywhere” portability as it does about the image quality. Still, I’m delighted by those little cameras. I took my favourite Milky Way shot so far on the X100S with the WCL and the minuscule Ultra Pod.

I picked up two new lenses this year, the Nikkor AF-S 24mm f/1.8 G and the Samyang 14mm f/2.8. The Nikon 24 was my default hiking lens, along with the 70-200mm f/4. The Samyang, on the hand, was used maybe just 3 times. Yet, it took one of my absolute favourite all time shots (the boathouse at sunset). Looking at the other shots in this post I see appearances from the Nikon 18-35, 24, 60 macro, 135 DC, the Sigma 35 and 50 1.4 ART lenses, the Samyang 14. The X100 series make up the rest with 5 from the native lens, 6 from the WCL and one from the TCL.

I also managed to complete a month of Photo of the Day but called it off when I got too busy… maybe I’ll pick it up again in 2020!

So here are my favourites, in order of date:

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Street shot in Trinidad, Cuba (X100S and WCL-X100)

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Street shot in Trinidad, Cuba (X100S and TCL-X100)

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Playa Ancon, Cuba long exposure (X100S and WCL-X100)

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From the roof of our hotel at Playa Ancon, Cuba (X100S and WCL-X100)

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Milky Way at Playa Ancon, Cuba with an alignment of the Moon, Venus, and Saturn (X100S and WCL-X100)

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Spring thaw at Schneider’s Bush, my favourite local trail (panorama D810 and Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART)

Greta on the Piano

Greta on the Piano (D750 and Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART)

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Hall’s Lake boathouse at sunset (D750 with Samyang 14mm f/2.8)

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Milky Way near Thornbury, Ontario (D810 and Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, panorama with five exposures at each of two positions, processed with Sequator)

Milky Way with Sigma 50mm Art

Milky Way near Thornbury, Ontario (D750 and Sigma 50mm Art at f/1.4, 6s, ISO 1600. 9 images combined in Sequator)

Old Baldy Crevace

Old Baldy, Beaver Valley Ontario (X100S and WCL-X100)

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Leslie and Magnus (X100S and WCL-X100)

Golden X-Wing

X-Wing (D810 with Nikon 60mm f/2.8 G Micro)

Bashful and Grumpy

Egg Cup and Clown (D810 and Nikon 135mm f/2 DC)

Immaculate Puffball

A perfect puffball (X100S) 

DIckson Wilderness Area

North Dumfries, Ontario (D750 with Nikon 24mm f/1.8 G)

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Canada flag and a cornfield near St Jacobs Market, Ontario (X100S)

Sunrise at Beithaupt Park

Sunrise at Breithaupt Park, Waterloo, Ontario (D810 with Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 G)

Grand River Sunrise

Misty sunrise on the Grand River, Waterloo, Ontario (D810 and Nikon 24mm f/1.8 G)

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On the Canal du Midi, Toulouse, France (X100F)

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Placa de Sant Filip Neri, Barcelona, Spain (X100F)

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Sunset in Gerona, Spain (X100F)

Whistler-Blackcomb – July 2017

During my trip to Vancouver in July I took a few days to drive up the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler-Blackcomb, with some stops at Murrin Park, Shannon Falls, Nairn Falls and Pemberton. A highlight of the trip was the Peak-to-Peak gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb.

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A Trip to Vancouver – July 2017

A perk of my job is that occasionally I get sent to Vancouver to do testing at UBC. This year I was lucky enough to visit in July and had perfect weather for the whole trip. I brought along the D750, 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, and 70-200mm f/4. Here are my favourite images:

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Multiple Exposure Mode with Nikon D810

A couple of months ago I was researching neutral density filters for long exposure landscape photography when I came across a forum post describing an alternative. I learned that Nikon’s DSLRs will add a number of exposures together (the maximum depends on the body) into a NEF RAW file with what they call “Multiple Exposure” mode. The summation of the set of images into a single file has an effect similar to a long exposure. In some cases it has an even bigger effect because you can control the delay between each exposure, something useful when blurring moving clouds, for example. The advantage of doing this in camera is that the output is a RAW file, making it much more editable (or so I’d expected).

I first tried out the mode in Elora, Ontario in the gorge where the Irvine Creek meets the Grand River. I brought water sandals so that I could stand in the river and my tripod with ball head for quick and easy framing. I mainly used the AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5g on the D810. I added a circular polarizer to cut down on glare, remove reflections from the water and slow down the shutter speed by a couple of stops.

I shot at in aperture priority, f/11 to f/16 at ISO Low 1 (ISO 31). Shutter speeds varied from 0.5 to 1.6 seconds. After framing and taking a test image I  set the camera to sum 10 shots with auto gain on. With auto gain the camera takes 10 shots, each at 1/10th of the total exposure (I assume shutter speed) and then adds them together to match the total exposure as if it had been one shot. In fact, the EXIF data reports the conditions as if it had been one photo. I was pretty happy with the way the photos looked! The water was blurred but the non-moving scenery was nice and sharp. After downloading the images to my computer and trying some edits in Lightroom my happiness faded.

The first thing I noticed was the that blacks were heavily clipped and stayed totally black with adjustments. Later I found that sections of water were posterized. The D810 is a camera with fantastic dynamic range and this was something I’d never seen before. Here is an example:

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Above is the NEF using just Lightroom’s default import settings. Below is the image after some normal edits.

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Here are a couple of crops, showing clipping at the top left and posterization on the bottom left.

I had a hunch. I checked the image settings and confirmed that I was shooting in 12 bits. The D810 is capable of generating 14 bit files but I don’t use them because I’ve honestly never needed to. However, in multiple exposure mode each of the images that make up the final image is shot underexposed.

In 12 bits images there are 4096 DN (digital numbers, or signal levels). Let’s say a very dark object uses 10 DN in a 12 bit image. Now, when shooting in multiple exposure mode with 10 images, that 10 DN object is only going to be 1 DN in each of the images because the exposure is 1/10th of normal. 1 DN is well into the noise floor and could even show up as 0 DN (i.e. clipped). When adding the 10 images together, all those noise-limited pixels remain clipped or at least heavily affected by noise. 14 bit images have 16384 DN worth of information. The same dark object that was 10 DN in 12 bit mode would be 40 DN in 14 bit mode. At 1/10th of the exposure you’d have 4 DN of signal, which is much less likely to clip.

Likewise, smoothly varying features like water and sky lose a lot of data when underexposed and can become posterized.

To test my theory I took a series of shots, all underexposed by about 3 stops. They all started off like this:

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I then brightened each image to a normal exposure. First I’ll show the two images that were not multiple exposure (left is 12 bit and right is 14 bit):

Apart from slight exposure difference, they’re pretty much the same. Now, the 10 shot multiple exposure images (again, 12 bits on the left and 14 bits on the right):

The 12 bit image is horrible! The 14 bit image is pretty good. Looking closely it’s still not perfect compared to the single 14 bit image but still passable. I haven’t found any discussion of this condition online which is why I’m writing this post.

With my newfound knowledge, I returned to Elora a few weeks later and this time shot entirely in 14 bit mode. I think the outcome was much better!

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Thanks for reading!

A Foggy Saturday

We’ve had a week of fog and unseasonably warm weather here in Southern Ontario. This Saturday I took advantage of the moody atmosphere to grab a few photos. The first two are from a walk at RIM Park with the D750 and AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (a lens I’ll talk about soon).

The night shots are from the X100s.  Lately I’ve been playing with the X100s in full manual mode (AF, shutter and aperture). It’s slowed down my shooting but I’ve enjoyed having full control and better consistency from shot to shot. My method is to first set exposure for the scene using the LCD in the view finder and then switch to the optical view. To focus, turning the focus ring on the lens activates the virtual split prism, where the centre of the image is magnified and superimposed with a split image generated from the AF phase-detection sensors. Focus is achieved when the split image is aligned.

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Photos of the Month – June 2016

Well, I haven’t posted in forever. To get myself back on the path to regularly blogging I’m going to try doing a few ‘Photos of the Month’ posts to recap the best images from the month. Most of these were taken with my pretty new Nikon D750 (I’m sure I’ll be writing about it soon) and the rest were with the X100s.

Enjoy!

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Trip to Arizona Part II – The Grand Canyon

Well, I crossed off another item on the bucket list in April with my visit to the Grand Canyon. I woke up at 5AM at the hotel in Flagstaff and hit the road before the sun rose so that I’d get to the canyon in the early morning light. I probably don’t need to say a lot about the place. It was epic and vast. I was there early enough that I was totally alone in some spots, without a person in site. That all changed a few hours later when it was teeming.

I walked down the Kaibob trail about 1200 feet and experienced a 15-20 degree (Celsius) temperature change compared to the top. The hike down was easy. The hike up was strenuous and parching.

I stayed past dark and parked myself at Lipan Point for the sunset and night sky shots. Unfortunately I ran the batteries out in the D700 but the X100s was up to the task! The night sky shot here is a panorama of X100s shots. Here are my 22 favourites spanning 7AM to 10PM.  D700 and X100s, AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G and Sigma 35mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8G.

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7 shot panorama with X100s

7 shot panorama with X100s

Studio Cat Portraits

Last weekend I tried using my new background kit (stands + white seamless) to shoot some portraits of our cats, Gracie and Professor Noam Chomsky. For the key light I used an Alien Bee B800 with gridded beauty dish from camera right, somewhat close to the posing stool. A Paul C Buff Brollie Box on a 2nd B800 was the fill light, set back from camera left. Both lights were set to equal output power, so distance controlled the intensity on the cats. The background light was a 3rd B800 with barn doors to control the spill.

“Posing” the cats was an exercise in patience. While Gracie eventually chilled out on the stool and let me get a long series of shots, Chomsky had no interest. The lamb skin helped but I still only had 10 seconds after setting him down before he’d run away to the bedroom.

I shot withe the D700 + AF-S 85mm f/1.8 G on a tripod and cable release, allowing me to shoot from the floor between the camera and cats.

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Simplifying Travel with a 35mm Lens – Part 2: Vancouver, BC

When getting ready for a work trip to Vancouver last week I must have re-packed my camera bag at least 5 times before settling on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Vancouver is a city with big views and as much as I wanted to simplify the travel kit I knew that there would be many occasion where a wide field of view would be needed. In the end I stuck with the 35 for its simplicity and beautiful optics and thankfully I had no regrets.

In the woods I shot at f/1.4 and ISO 1600. For epic landscapes I shot panoramas at tiny apertures. Again the focal length was perfect for capturing scenes just as I saw them.

All below are D700 + Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Some here are of my co-worker, Connor, trying to capture the perfect selfie. Others are of Clevelend Dam, English Bay and downtown Vancouver, Lynn Canyon, TRIUMF, and Granville Island.

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