Cape Cod Sunset, A Study in Tools Wednesday, Oct 15 2014 

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit Cape Cod, Massachusetts for the first time. It’s a place of quiet fishing villages, trendy tourist destinations and hip hangouts. Since it’s a peninsula, it’s also a very convenient destination for both sunrise and sunset photography – on multiple days, I was able to shoot both golden hours.

In this post, I present three shots taken within moments of each other, with three different cameras. It was a sunset shoot at Rock Harbor, not far from the city of Orleans, MA. The extremely low tide left many tidal pools and exposed sand dunes and grass patches, so there were plenty of ways to experiment with composition.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Film Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Film Camera

First up is my massively reliable medium format camera, Mamiya 7, which was loaded with the legendary Fuji Velvia 50 film. The metering for a sunset scene is never easy, and for a contrasty film like Velvia, I wanted to preserve the highlights, but the shot still ended up quite underexposed — most of the foreground is just too dark. On the other hand, the setting sun and the sky at the horizon have a great color to it, and I love the dark fluffy clouds on top set against the still bright sky. The composition of the foreground is also pleasing, with the patch of grass in the tidal pool. As usual for a shot done on Velvia, I didn’t do much post-processing; I tried to improve the shadows a bit, but not to the point where the photo becomes too grainy.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Digital SLR Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Digital SLR Camera

A few moments later, the sun finally set, but the sky was still pretty bright. This shot was taken by my digital camera, Canon 7D, at the widest setting on my 17-40mm f/4L lens. The composition seems a little different, lower to the ground, and the horizon falls closer to the rule of thirds. The bluish tint is typical for the “blue hour”, but there is still some reddish hues to add interest to the shot. As in the film shot, the tidal pool provides a great reflection, and I like the ripples in the sand, too. I would have liked some more color in the photo, but it still has a nice moody quality – of the three shots, it would probably work the best in black and white. And speaking of quality, even at ISO 800, there is almost no noise or grain in the image.

Rock Harbor Sunset, Smartphone Camera

Rock Harbor Sunset, Smartphone Camera

Finally, we have the humble smartphone camera; I had with me the Droid Ultra and its 10 megapixel camera, which is more than decent. I metered for the brightest part of the image and let the automatic settings fall where they may. As it happens, I like this shot the best, and it’s partly because of the very wide native format of the camera, which works well with the scene. It’s also very bright, but nothing seems too blown out. There is some chrominance noise in the clouds, but other than that, the shot looks very sharp and clean. I posted it on my Instagram page in its cropped form.

In the end, no one shot is significantly better than the others, but this exercise helps me compare how different cameras see the same scene, so that I can use them more efficiently next time.

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Utah Rocks, Part II: Thor’s Hammer Monday, Dec 9 2013 

In my previous post from the Bryce Canyon National Park, I mentioned a rock formation known as Thor’s Hammer. It is one of the countless “hoodoos” in the main amphitheater of the park, but possibly the most imposing and easily recognizable.

Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

It gets its name from the shape at the top of the spire; through some fortunate geological coincidence, the sedimentary rock at the top of the spire is harder than the one below it, so it eroded less over eons, resulting in the characteristic shape. The rock is porous and the water that seeps in the microscopic cracks expands and contracts during endless daily freeze-thaw cycles, carving stone into hoodoos in the process. Geology meets mythology, you might say.

To get this photo, I simply walked down the path just under the Sunset point. It’s about as close as you can get to the Hammer, as it sticks out from the slope of the canyon. The rising June sun paints it a bright orange color while most of the rest of the amphitheater is still lit indirectly. One thing I love about the amphitheater is the shades of orange and red that it creates as light bounces around in the tight spaces in between the hoodoos.

It seems like Hammer has three siblings who live next door, but they are bunched together, and we’ll see over the next few millenia whether they turn into something quite as imposing as the Hammer. Who knows, maybe by that time the endless freeze-thaw cycles of Bryce Canyon would end Thor’s Hammer as we see it today.

Thor's Hammer At Night

Thor’s Hammer At Night

As it happens, I walked this path around midnight the previous night. The Moon was full and high up in the summer sky and it lit the amphitheater beautifully. There were even guided midnight hiking tours, where visitors got to see a very different Bryce Canyon. I took several digital shots, and was reminded of an old technical problem; without a remote shutter release, I could only take 30-second exposures, unless I wanted to hold my finger on the shutter button for an extended period of time. On top of that, I had to use a pretty narrow f/11 aperture setting, to keep everything sharp, since camera has a hard time getting focus lock in such low light conditions. As a result, I bumped the ISO on my Canon 7D camera to 1600, but it all worked out nicely — photo is sharp and not too noisy, and offers a different perspective of this great looking rock.

Utah Rocks, Part I: Bryce Canyon National Park Friday, Oct 11 2013 

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of my favorite places to watch the sunrise. It’s more of an amphitheater than a canyon, and it’s facing east, so the morning sun lights up the endless rock formations known as hoodoos. The resulting color palette is a sight to behold.

Sentinel, Bryce Canyon National Park

Sentinel, Bryce Canyon National Park

I shot sunrise at Bryce on two separate earlier trips, but when I decided to attend a conference in Las Vegas in June 2013, I knew I would want to do it again. And so, after the conference wrapped up, I rented a car, and made the 4-or-so-hour drive into the mountains of Utah.

I stayed only two nights, which meant two attempts at a sunrise. The first morning I stayed at the rim and shot pretty much the same composition as I did a few years ago. As it happens, that’s been one of my most successful photos ever, so I didn’t improve on it.

Sentinel, Without the Hikers

Sentinel, Without the Hikers

The second morning I decided to walk down the trail and among the hoodoos. The shot was set up so that the Thor’s Hammer, a famous rock formation, was behind me. In front of me was the slender spire called The Sentinel, and some rock cliffs on the right. The horizon to the east was muddled with some clouds, but in a fortuitous moment, the sun shone through and lit the cliffs perfectly.

Sentinel, Without the Sunlight

Sentinel, Without the Sunlight

As it would turn out, in that fortuitous moment, two hikers leisurely walked into the bottom right corner of my frame. Since my Mamiya 7 is a rangefinder camera, I didn’t notice them through the viewfinder, but the lens definitely did, since it sits down and to the right from the viewfinder. I didn’t feel like editing them out until I’m ready to display the photo at an exhibit or something, so I took another shot, shown here in the smaller format. The composition isn’t quite what I’d like, but the colors are still spectacular. In fact, they look even more saturated here due to the fact that I scanned that frame with a little less care than the main photo above.

Another bonus shot is of the same composition, taken while the sun was obscured by the clouds. It’s just another proof of my “Formula” for a successful shot, which states that you need only Fuji Velvia 50 film and “golden hour” sunlight; the subject almost doesn’t matter. Here’s the same subject under two lighting conditions only moments apart, and while it looks nice on one shot, it really comes alive in the other.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park Friday, Mar 22 2013 

Entrance to Fort Jefferson

Entrance to Fort Jefferson

Although I’m a big fan of the National Park Service, I never even heard of the Dry Tortugas National Park until I visited Key West, Florida in December 2012. It’s an ecological paradise, sanctuary to countless species of birds and marine life. The only catch is that it’s located 90 miles to the west of Key West, which makes it one of the more difficult National Parks to get to.

Nevertheless, a few photos on a brochure I looked at convinced me that the trip is well worth taking. My hotel made arrangements with the speedy boat to take me there early one morning. The ride is a couple of hours long and on this particular trip the sea was quite choppy, so some passengers lost their breakfast before they got to the destination.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson – looking over the moat to the Loggerhead Key in the distance (film shot)

When we finally docked at Garden Key, we were greeted by the massive Fort Jefferson, built in the 19th century to provide a strategic stronghold in the Gulf of Mexico. Wikipedia says that it’s a largest masonry structure in the Americas, consisting of 16 million bricks. It even has a moat built around it, with a walkway that circumnavigates the fort.

Rodman Gun, Fort Jefferson

Rodman Gun, Fort Jefferson

The fort was fully operational during the Civil War and it included a prison, whose most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, serving the sentence for treating the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of President Lincoln. Mudd ended up serving as the fort doctor during the outbreak of the yellow fever in 1867, which in part led to his pardon.

Civil War history of the fort is also evident by several heavy cannons that can still be found around it. Pictured above is a 10-inch Rodman gun, one of the most common in the fort.

Fort Jefferson, View from Bush Key

Fort Jefferson, View from Bush Key

Finally, since the tide was pretty low, I decided to walk across a small sandbar onto the Bush Key, which appears as a separate island on most photos I’ve seen, because the sandbar gets submerged. Looking back to Fort Jefferson, you can see on the left the catamaran ship that brought me there, and the seaplane which originated in Alaska judging from the tail insignia.

Bush Key walk was thoroughly enjoyable and I made some nice photographs that I will share in a separate post.

Pontiac Starchief Thursday, Oct 18 2012 

Since I talked yesterday about some rusty cars, I thought I’d add another.

Pontiac Starchief

Pontiac Starchief

Most of the cars in the field were covered in rust, but this Pontiac Starchief still had the bright red paint on. Perhaps it wasn’t shiny as before, but it still made it stand out, especially with that massive tail fin.

Again, my Mamiya 645 1000S camera, with expired Kodak Portra 800 film, shot at EI 200 (2 stops overexposed), due to the age of the film.

Ford Truck Smile Wednesday, Oct 17 2012 

I wrote the other day about my Mamiya 645 camera and the fisheye lens I had for it. This is one of the photos I made with it.

Ford Truck Smile

Ford Truck Smile

A local photographer I know suggested that we look for abandoned vehicle lots somewhere south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The field where we found the Desoto Powerflite was one of such locations, and this was another. It looked as if it was someone’s back yard, and it had a lot of old rusted out trucks and cars that still had some really distinctive design features.

I made a few shots with my normal lenses, but then I wanted to play around with the fisheye. The photo is made from about a foot away from the grille of the truck, and the way the lens curves the lines, it makes it seem like the truck is smiling, like a cartoon character.

In the end, I decided that the fisheye lens is a nice toy, but that my preferences lay on the other end of the focal length scale, in the normal to telephoto range. So I sold the lens for a nice profit and eventually used the money to upgrade to the Mamiya 7 I have now. I have no regrets, but I do have a few fun shots.

Mamiya 645 1000S Monday, Oct 15 2012 

Once I started shooting 35mm film, I found that I was really enjoying the process and the result. Film makes you slow down, think about your shots, and as a result, you usually end up with better photos.

Mamiya 645 1000S

Mamiya 645 1000S

I got greedy, though, and I knew I wanted to get into medium format film. I stumbled upon a great deal on Craigslist and bought this Mamiya 645 1000S camera, with the 80mm lens, for $250. I even got an extra body, along with some knicknacks.

It was heavy and clumsy, and it took some getting used to, especially since there were some minor bugs that I had to learn the hard way. But I enjoyed the simplicity of it – manual focus, manual exposure, split level focus point, and a gigantic viewfinder. Most of all, I liked the huge image area – when the developed slides would come from the lab, it was just beautiful to look at.

Mamiya 645 1000S with the 25mm fisheye lens

Mamiya 645 1000S with the 25mm fisheye lens

I bought two other lenses for it; one was a slightly wider 45mm, which worked brilliantly, and the other was Mamiya-Sekor 24mm f/4 Fisheye ULD C, which was a mouthful to say, and a beast of a lens. It works out to be about 15mm on a regular film format (35mm), which is extremely wide.

I eventually sold all my 645 gear and traded up for the Mamiya 7 that I have now. I wrote a blog post when that camera was only a shy little wish list entry. Mamiya 7 is a 6×7 format, so it is slightly larger than the 6×4.5 format. The camera is also a rangefinder, so it’s more compact and easier to carry around. I’m still enjoying the medium format film, and I think I have a great camera; I may start getting some more lenses for it soon.

Deep Ellum, Dallas, TX Thursday, Oct 11 2012 

I mentioned recently that I had some fun shooting expired Kodak Portra 800 film a few years ago. The film expired in 2003, and the first effect of that was that the film lost at least a stop of light sensitivity. So, I exposed the following rolls at EI 400, which yielded much better results. The colors were still hit and miss – in the Desoto shot I posted earlier, they looked great, but they looked quite muted elsewhere.

Deep Ellum, expired film

Deep Ellum, expired film

In terms of content, the murals in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas depict two blues guitar icons, Robert Johnson, who famously sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, and John Lee Hooker. The third painting seems to show a Dallas skyline, with a cat resting on the half moon above the city.

Final note: on this occasion, I went on a walk through Deep Ellum with two other local photographers, who were also shooting medium format film. It was one of them who gave me the idea to try developing my own film. The process of developing color print film is much more involved, but developing black and white film turned out to be pretty straightforward.

One Last Rome Post Wednesday, Oct 10 2012 

I spent this Sunday afternoon finally developing a roll of Ilford FP5 Plus film. It’s a roll I started in Rome, and finished at the Italian Car Festival in Grapevine. I was a little hesitant, because the last time I tried to develop my own film, I wasn’t very successful.

I meant to split this post in two, with one photo in each, but decided you probably had enough of Rome shots for a little while. So, I’m combining them into one post, so we can move to something else tomorrow.

Forum, film

Forum, film

First we have the Forum again, with Temple of Saturn in the foreground on the left and the Coliseum in the background on the right. I like the clarity of this shot, and the high-contrast afternoon light gives a more pleasing result here than in the color shot from a few weeks ago. There is, however, some banding in the sky that is probably a result of an uneven exposure to some chemicals during the development process. But it’s still a very nice shot overall.

Trevi Fountain, film

Trevi Fountain, film

The second shot is Trevi. Again unflattering, late morning light, but a slightly tighter composition brings up the majesty of the fountain a little better than the earlier shot. It also helps that there are no tourist heads at the bottom, but I’m really angry at the Rome municipal government for setting up that scaffolding on the left of the fountain.

Rome is my favorite city in the world. What’s yours?

St. Peter’s Basilica, Part Three Tuesday, Oct 9 2012 

I spent this Sunday afternoon finally developing a roll of Ilford FP5 Plus film. It’s a roll I started in Rome, and finished at the Italian Car Festival in Grapevine. I was a little hesitant, because the last time I tried to develop my own film, I wasn’t very successful.

This post might as well be titled “St. Peter’s Basilica, Part Two, Part Two”, because the photos featured here are just about the same as the ones I posted a few days ago.

St. Peter's Basilica, film

St. Peter’s Basilica, film

For the first photo, I climbed on a ledge of the obelisk in the center of the St. Peter’s Square, but I still had to crop off some tourists’ heads at the bottom of the frame, which made the photo a little wider than the natural 6×7 format of the Mamiya 7 camera.

St. Peter's Square, film

St. Peter’s Square, film

The photo from St. Peter’s cupola showcases that format very directly. The digital color shot in the previous post was taken with my zoom lens at 29mm, which is about normal for a small sensor digital camera. The lens I had on Mamiya 7 is also normal, 80mm, but because the format is more square, the field of view opens up to include a little bit of sky above the horizon, which was not visible in the earlier shot.

I very much enjoy the 6×7 format, because it is very nearly square, so there’s no visible advantage to rotating the camera to a portrait orientation. That way I eliminate one of the variables and I have one fewer thing to think about while shooting.

You’re welcome to share your experience and advice about developing film in the comments.

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