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.

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.

Coliseum, Rome, Italy Wednesday, Sep 26 2012 

After seeing images from Trevi Fountain and Piazza Venezia, it’s time for the real deal. The most recognizable Rome attraction is the Coliseum, an ancient stadium where the plebs and emperors alike were entertained by gladiators, reenactments and animals.

Coliseum, Golden Hour

Coliseum, Golden Hour

I’m arranging the photos chronologically again, this time by choice. The first photo is a detail I wanted to grab because the “golden hour” window, when the light is best, was closing fast. I took my EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens and isolated this top floor of the Coliseum, showing the bricks placed at the end of the outer ring to prevent further deterioration of the structure.

Then, on the walk back up the Via de Fori Imperiali, after the sun already set, I took a look back and saw the Moon just barely rising over the Coliseum. I had to step into the street, and although the street-level shot is a little too crowded for my taste, it definitely turned out well.

Moon over Coliseum

Moon over Coliseum

A few days later, I would actually follow the crowd and go inside the place. I got a nice tour that explored the underbelly of the Coliseum, as well as its top floor. It was a truly magical time – it was difficult to comprehend that men built this place a few thousand years ago and that it still stands. I imagine people thinking the same at the Pyramids in Egypt.

Coliseum, Mid-day Sun

Coliseum, Mid-day Sun

The mid-day sun wasn’t kind to the photographs, however. Shown here is the look down on the main levels of the Coliseum from the top, or as close to the top as a tourist can get. Buy the extra tour, it’s well worth it.

Coliseum, from Palatine Hill

Coliseum, from Palatine Hill

Finally, here’s a look back to Coliseum from the field across, Palatine Hill. The whole area of Palatine Hill is an active archeological dig — there are even some fairly recent discoveries, despite the foot traffic around the Coliseum. In any event, this last shot is on Fuji Velvia 50 film. A few hours too early to fully take advantage of the golden hour, but still a nice shot from an elevated vantage point. What I like the most is a slightly sideways view onto the inner and the outer rings of the Coliseum. The fact that the outer ring survived all this time, even only at 50% or so, is quite remarkable.

Coliseum is one of those bucket list items, and I’m happy I can cross it off of mine.

Piazza Venezia, Rome, Italy Tuesday, Sep 25 2012 

Yesterday, I showed you a few photos of Fontana di Trevi from my visit to Rome, Italy, and today I’m continuing Rome Week on the blog.

Piazza de Venezia is an enormous square right in the middle of Rome, dominated by the massive monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, made in white marble, covered in columns, statues, steps, fountains and all sorts of other embellishments.

Piazza Venezia

Piazza Venezia

The monument is basically a celebration of the unification of Italy under Victor Emanuel. He’s the guy on the horse in the detail photo below (notice how the Italian flag unfolded into my shot just right). Since it was built on top of the Capitoline Hill, it’s visible from just about anywhere in Rome, but that’s also a cause for some controversy. The Wikipedia article even mentions some pejorative nicknames given to the monument, due to its size, color and artistic value (or lack thereof).

Vittorio Emanuele Monument, detail

Vittorio Emanuele Monument, detail

It’s undeniable, however, that the monument is still an imposing structure. I was particularly impressed by the sculptures on each side of the roof – they represent the goddess Victoria riding on a chariot pulled by four horses. You will also see a detail shot of one of the ends of the monument, showing the columns, the inscription “Civium Libertati” (“Freedom to the people”) and one of the Victoria sculptures.

The shots are inadvertently shown in the chronological order by the time of day. The first three were made on my way to the Coliseum; the top one is shortly upon my arrival to Piazza Venezia. I spent some time lingering at the square, so I caught the beginning of the “golden hour” of sunset, which can be recognized by the pleasing warm light on the two detail shots. The ending of this same golden hour will be shown tomorrow at another location.

The last photo below was taken at night a few days later. There was a full (ish) Moon during my visit, and I was able to compose a few shots with the monument and the Moon together. The monument is very nicely lit at night, but for some reason, the Victoria sculptures were almost not lit at all – you can barely make out the one on the right side of the photo.

The Dude on a Horse, aka Vittorio Emanuele II

The Dude on a Horse, aka Vittorio Emanuele II

As my Rome itinerary was pretty intense, I never got onto the monument, or inside it, but it seems that there is an elevator now that you can take all the way up to the roof. Since I said the monument can be seen from all of Rome, I can imagine that one could see all of Rome from the top of it. That definitely goes on a to-do list for a future visit.

Piazza Venezia at Night

Piazza Venezia at Night

What do you think about the monument – awesome or gaudy?

Sunset, Grapevine Lake, TX Saturday, Sep 15 2012 

This photo is literally the last photo I took with my Canon 20D.

Sunset, Grapevine Lake

Sunset, Grapevine Lake

I mentioned yesterday that I owned a Canon 20D digital camera for a few years. I bought it from a friend who had upgraded, and I really liked it. It had the dial on the back, which made selecting options very easy. The camera had a nice heavy feel to it and fit nicely in my hand.

When I bought it, 20D was already obsolete – 30D was already on the market and 40D came up shortly after that. But those cameras didn’t really offer anything I wanted. The Live View on the 40D would have been nice, but it wasn’t enough for me to switch.

I went on many trips with the 20D, shot several studio sessions and a wedding. But when Canon released their 7D, I was ready. The new camera was faster, more powerful and easier to use, it shot HD video and it wirelessly controlled off-camera flash. So, a few days before my new 7D arrived, I took my 20D for a visit to Grapevine Lake, where I took some sunset pictures including the one above.

It’s a good reminder to not rush into “upgradeitis” — maybe the shiny new device that just came out isn’t the right choice for you. Instead, get as much use you can out of the one you already have, and upgrade only when it makes sense.

Missed Sunrise, Mount Rainier Tuesday, Sep 11 2012 

Almost exactly a year ago, I traveled to Seattle to visit my friend Tyler, and visiting Mount Rainier was on top of our to-do list. And, sure enough, we drove up there one afternoon, scoped out some spots to shoot the following sunrise, drove around for a bit, and then retreated to our campsite. I was excited to finally get to use my new Mamiya 7 camera – it’s the one I wanted for a while.

Missed Sunrise

Missed Sunrise

So, the following morning, I loaded it with Fuji Velvia film, expecting the sunrise to fire up the massive mountain in warm tones of orange and pink. Just as expected, the sunrise was spectacular. I used my Canon 7D digital camera mainly to meter the scene, and I kept firing the Mamiya every few minutes, as the light was changing.

When the magic light was gone and it was time to go, with no small amount of horror did I realize that I had my lens cap on the camera the whole time. You see, Mamiya 7 is a rangefinder, which means that you look through the viewfinder, but not through the lens (like with SLR cameras).

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier

A classic rookie mistake, and now I was left only with those digital shots. I barely found a few that sort of worked; the one on top is during the magic light, but the second one is less than 20 minutes later – the magic was definitely gone.

Let it be said here that Mount Rainier is one of the most impressive sights I ever saw. It’s an enormous volcano, covered in glaciers, rugged and foreboding. It is the center of the eponymous National Park that is definitely up there with the most beautiful places on Earth and you should definitely go there if you get the chance.

What’s your favorite National Park? Leave a comment below.

Vlašić Mountain, Bosnia and Herzegovina Friday, Dec 23 2011 

In October of this year, as I try to do every year, I visited my homeland of Bosnia and Herzegovina and spent two weeks with the closest members of my family – mom, dad, and sister. The four of us wanted to take an extended weekend trip to a resort on the mountain of Vlašić, a few hours north of the home town and capital of Sarajevo. All photos in this post were taken with my new medium format film camera, Mamiya 7.

Clouds over a Valley

Clouds over a Valley

To properly write “Vlašić” is hard enough with English alphabet, and to pronounce it even harder. But the place is a gorgeous ski resort, which we visited before the first snow and the official start of the busy season. The black and white photo above (Ilford HP5 film) was one of the first I took up there, on a trail just above a ski jump tower, which can be seen above the tree canopies on the right. The sky was quite foreboding and threatened the sleepy valley below.

Last Light on Pines

Last Light on Pines

The following morning, I was too lazy to get up and shoot the sunrise, but in the evening, I went back up the trail to try to catch some of the warm “golden hour” light. The clouds parted a bit and just before the sun went down, it lit beautifully this row of conifer trees. I like the way that streak of red stands out among the green, both of which come out great on the Fuji Velvia film.

Ski Lift Shack

Ski Lift Shack

Remarkably, I managed to squeeze one more shot during this golden hour – the odd looking building is a tiny wooden shack at the top of the ski lift. The wood picks up the warm light nicely, enhanced again by the magical Fuji Velvia.

Splash of Color

Splash of Color

A day or two later, on our last evening on the mountain, I went for a walk in a different direction – not as much elevation gain as the top of the ski lift, but still some nice scenery. I was walking through some fields and found this bundle of color in the grass. I envisioned a depth-of-field shot, turned my aperture to f/4 and got as close as I could to the flower. The depth of field in the resulting shot was a little too thin, but I still like the way it turned out.

For more of my photos from other trips to Bosnia, visit my Flickr sets here, here and here.

Formula Solution, Zion National Park, Utah Wednesday, May 25 2011 

I talked about The Formula before. All you need for a good photo is the golden hour light, just after sunrise or just before sunset, and Velvia 50 slide film. It almost doesn’t matter what your subject is; the colors that the chemical engineers in Fuji laboratories cooked up are so bold, they’re their own subject.

The Formula has some limitations and challenges. Slide film traditionally has a rather low dynamic range, meaning that your dark shadows (which usually afflict your photos during golden hour) are going to be indistinguishably black if you’re not careful. Even if you are careful, there’s often not much you can do. Such was the challenge here.

Formula Solution

These are the Towers of the Virgin, a series of ragged peaks soaring hundreds of feet above the little alcove at the mouth of the Zion Canyon, right behind the Visitor Center and museum. They have good fortune that they face the east and that their view of the rising sun is largely unobstructed. The bad fortune is that this geographical position makes them an easy favorite for sunrise subjects of photographers of all skill levels.

I’ve been to Zion with Tyler and John two different times before, and we have never been around this area this early in the morning. Below, in black and white, is a shot from one of the previous visits, where we snapped a few quick shots of this same scene in the afternoon. We also did some moonlit shooting on another occasion. So, on this morning, we decided to take this cliche shot off our to-do list.

I had some trouble composing the photo above. My normal lens was a bit too long, and some of the peaks would be left out of the shot. The wide angle lens seemed like an obvious choice, but I was frustrated that my shot consisted of a large swath of blue on top, equally large swath of black at the bottom, with a little strip down the middle.

Afternoon, 2008

The solution was simple – cut off the top and the bottom, and embrace the panoramic quality of the subject. There was really no point in trying to bring out the uninteresting vegetation of the meadow in the foreground. The resulting format is a little wider than 2:1, but I think it fits the scene. That afternoon, many photographs later, I will visit a park gift shop and find a similar shot on a very wide souvenir magnet; it’s nice to see that I have the same thought process as the park’s merchandising department.

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