Fickle Fate of Favorite Photo

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

My most ‘acclaimed’ photo is a good example of the somewhat fickle nature of aesthetic opinion. And furthering the fickleness of this photo, I wouldn’t have captured it at all if Elizabeth hadn’t seen the scene first, taking her own version on the balcony of our Tokyo hotel during a colorful sunset evening last June.


My first success with it was a 3rd place win in the Around the Cities round of the Amateur Photographer of the Year competition, a contest run by the popular UK magazine Amateur Photographer which draws over a thousand entries a month. Foreshadowing the uneven path this image would take, the judges were almost apologetic in explaining that it was the best of the pictures that met the theme, so they decided against choosing it for first or second place (click on the above image to read the caption, and figure out for yourself why a shack in the woods and a deserted bridge would place in a contest of this theme).


Belonging to 3 different camera clubs (do not ask), this image ended up in 6 different club competitions. It didn’t win anything 2 of the times. Entered in a theme competition ‘Architecture’, it won an Honorable Mention, meaning it was in the top 25% of entries that night, also qualifying it for the end of the year competition. As shown above, at the end of year competition it was awarded the blue ribbon for digital projected image, and Best In Show.

It had placed 2nd in the other club in a monthly competition for the theme ‘A Different Point of View’ , finally ending up with an Honorable Mention at that club’s end of year competition. I don’t remember now if it was one of the judges who didn’t give it any ribbon, but one of the four monthly competition judges complained that the rectangles in the center of the image were offset, and wasn’t that a shame.  It should be clear at this point that different judges do have different points of view.

Tokyo Balconies on display in Fenton House

Meanwhile, the Royal Photographic Society, which I had joined in the UK and continue to support, is always looking for ways to encourage their non-UK members. It organized an exhibit from the ‘Overseas Chapters’. The US chapter selected my image, making it one of approximately 100 images that spent a month being exhibited at Fenton House, the Royal Photographic Society’s headquarters in Bath. This exhibit is also scheduled to be in London at the Royal Photographic Society Cave from the 11th to 31st of July, so if you are in London this summer, you can see it.

The picture also generated some attention on a photo critique site where I spend some time, called Photosig. Ending up as my second highest scoring image.

Evening Balconies

In one of the club competitions that didn’t go so well, the picture ended up displayed on its side (don’t ask).  I thought it did have some potential in alternative orientation, but the lacy ironwork seemed unbalanced, so I Photoshopped it, copying the top half, pasting and flipping it, positioning it over the bottom half of the photo, and then rotating it 90 degrees.  I actually like the result a lot.  It has a degree of surreality that I think is interesting. And it fixed that judge’s concern about non-symmetric windows. Several other people like it too, and the surreal version of Tokyo Balconies ended up as my 3rd highest scoring image on Photosig, just behind the non-manipulated version.

For those who are following my series on before & after photos, the non-manipulated version of this image is one that spent no time in Photoshop. The original camera RAW image was processed in Lightroom for global exposure, contrast, and color saturation. White Balance was left As Shot..  The color turns out to be a very important aspect of this image. I experimented with black & white, but it just turns out blah. This is essentially what we saw off our hotel balcony at 6:48 PM

ISO 800, f/18, 1/20 sec (there’s a lot to be said for both steady hands and image stabilization)

My Tokyo Hose

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Blue Hose Final Version

There is something irresistibly sinuous about a garden hose, exhibiting a natural elegance as it mimics the French curve. I found my Tokyo Hose last summer in trendy Shibuya.

Blue Hose As Captured By the Camera

Always on the lookout for found still lives, this one struck me as almost perfect as originally presented, and I did not ask my subject to make any changes in her pose.  If I had it to do over again, I think I would have moved the bucket, but that turned out to be one of the easier digital darkroom operations. Taken at 17mm and f;8, ensured enough depth of field for the entire image to be adequately sharp.  Perspective was the first fix, easily corrected in Lightroom (Distortion +7, Vertical –30, Horizontal –7, Rotate –0.9), resulting in a square image that looked like it had been taken directly downwards from an impossible position centered over the hose.  This still left me with the unwanted bucket, and some unsightly reflections from the harsh midday sun, so I moved to Photoshop for some outpatient surgery.


Copying another section of tiles and pasting it over the bucket simplified the image, turning a garden scene into a near-abstract.

The next task was to take care of the unsightly reflections by copying better looking tiles, and pasting them over the ones with the bright reflections. I ended up making 4 patches like this. I created mask layers over 3 of the top 3 tile layers and then brushed black over the mask to blend in the seams.  The hose was the most fiddly part, because it needed to look realistic, but I didn’t have a dark gap to hide a transition.  I also used curve layers, (1, 2, and 3) to correct the exposure and contrast of several of these patches to more closely blend with their neighbors. My final step was to create an empty layer, setting the mode to Overlay, and filling it with neutral gray. This is a quick and easy way to make a Burn & Dodge layer, and it has the advantage of being editable.  Painting on it with a white brush, as I did in the upper left corner, opened up the darker tiles, making them a closer match to the tiles around the hose, and ensuring a symmetric and simple background. 

I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I’m not sure that Japanese hoses are innately more elegant than any other hoses, but to me, this particular bit of blue rubber tube is suggestive, even symbolic, of the Japanese obsession with elegance and form.

Lost Italian Holiday

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Italian Holiday

Sometimes I wonder how many orphaned pictures are wandering around my hard drive, not recognized as being attractive, or interesting, let alone prize worthy. In digital limbo for 6 years,  this 2006 photo of an Italian family swimming and rowing in the Bay of Naples off the coast of Vico Equense is a good case in point.  I like this picture—it has humor, it tells a story, and something about it seems very typical and authentic of the place.  This is street photography on the beach.

Looking for a relatively inexpensive, yet interesting place for a week’s holiday, Elizabeth bought us a trip to Naples in July. Even if wasn’t the 5th week of a garbage workers’ strike, it didn’t take much time in that frantic city to figure out why the rates were low. There’s a reason why Italians say “va fa Napoli” instead of “go to hell.” Claiming Norwegian DNA, Kirk and I melted all over several archeological ruins.  But everybody should get a chance to see Pompeii, and anyone who has failed to experience a bus ride down the Amalfi coast lacks sufficient appreciation for the advantages of western civilization.

Elizabeth did find us a delightful and newly renovated hotel in Vico Equense, a place with fantastic pizza, a relatively laid back lifestyle, and a steep cliff overlooking the vivid green bay of Naples and distant Mount Vesuvius. We spent some time in a lovely little park, overlooking the Bay, watching swimmers, boaters, and a wedding party coming out of a nearby church.  Reaching to the very limits of a 70-200mm zoom, I was checking out the beach, and captured a couple pictures of a family in a rented row boat.  The last one was over exposed and a bit far away.  I don’t know how I eventually stumbled over it years later, but I applied some newer highlight adjustment in Lightroom, pulled down the blacks slider, cropped it, and the unremarkable little picture below suddenly turned into the image at above.

Italian Holiday

Old Shoes

Friday, April 12th, 2013


Old Shoes

The Lonaconing Silk Mill has become something of a photographic mecca for the mid-Atlantic. All of the judges, and camera club regulars, have learned to recognize the increasingly iconic spindles, machines, and shoes that have been cooling their heels in this crumbling site since it was shutdown without warning in 1957.

Paying the owner $75 for the privilege of being able to go wherever we wanted, and move whatever we wanted to,  Elizabeth and I joined a group from the local camera club on a bitter cold January morning several years ago.  I found my favorite scene in a cramped locker room on the top floor.  Golden winter sunlight was streaming in through a grimy window, lighting up the contents of open cubbyholes containing shoes and other personal effects that had been left behind for over a half century.

Old Shoes

I experimented with several different pairs of shoes, but the red shoes, which looked more like some pope’s Italian loafers than a working woman’s practical footwear for the factory, contrasted nicely with the darkened old green locker.  Getting my tripod as close to the far wall as I could, while still being able to see the LCD, I took a bracketed series of exposures.


It took me 8 layers to create an image that approached what I’d seen when I was actually at the mill. Dealing with the cramped quarters and not wanting to block the golden light, I ended up a slightly skewed perspective that I corrected with the Transform tool, ensuring that the bottom border was square with the sides of the photo.  I had first experimented with an HDR image, but just didn’t like the way it came out. However, I did end up superimposing the HDR version on top of the normal version, and selectively unmasked it, providing some additional detail in the shadows at the back of the shoes (see Brighter shoes layer above). This version of the red shoes was missing the top of the open bin, so I copied it from a different picture, pasted it on top, and then used the Transform tool to correct the horizontal perspective, and straighten it so that it would be square with the photo and the other 3 borders.  I used a curves layer to match the exposure to the other 3 borders.

A bright object next to the shoes had to go, I cleaned the chalk marks off of the upper wooden piece, and then I did some local corrections, burning & dodging in an overlay layer, and an adjustment layer masked to the #75 label improved its contrast. After saving the multi-layered composite as a TIFF, I made some global adjustments in Lightroom, dialing some yellow back in to restore that nice golden glow. Using my favorite Velvet Fine Art paper, I made a 17.5 inch wide print, and matted it with Rising white.

Lonaconing Silk Mill Exterior

Garlic Still Life

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

Garlic Bulb

The truth be told, I have little patience for doing still lives, but I took one of my favorite photographs in a makeshift studio in my backyard in 2011.

The garlic growing experiment turned out to be a great success, providing dozens of medium-sized garlic plants without any significant interference from deer or woodchuck.  The idea of photographing the garlics started with my admiration of the scapes, the elegant gooseneck shape at the top of the stem. Harvesting the bulbs, I found that the underground part of the plant was even more interesting than the top.

Borrowing a very heavy slate that was sitting unused in a neighbor’s yard, I set it on the ground as a natural backdrop for my vegetable portraits.  With indirect sun coming from one side, a white poster board against the fence on the other side provided some fill light.  I set up a tripod, with the arm extending horizontally, to hold my camera still. I’ve got a lovely old Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 close up lens that I found in mint shape on eBay, which is where I also bought a Nikon lens adaptor for my Canon 50D.

Some photographers have been surprised to learn that this is a High Dynamic Range Image (HDR), or more precisely, it is a TIF that was tonemapped from an HDR image created by combining 3 exposures.  HDR techniques can emphasize the mid-range contrast, greatly enhancing texture, which really enhances the roots in this image.  After processing the image in Photomatix, I removed some spots from the slate in Photoshop.  The conversion to black & white was done in Lightroom.

It clearly works better on matte paper than glossy. I experimented with half a dozen different fine art papers and finally settled on Canson’s Montval Aquarelle, a cold press paper without any optical brighteners. That 310 gsm watercolour paper really makes it pop, giving it some life and dimension.  I like the way the picture comes out on the screen, but I love the way it prints.

Bulembu: photo portraits

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

I got off to a rocky start on the 2nd day. In what turned into my start-of-the-workday pattern, it seemed to always take 45 minutes before I was able to make clean prints. After powering up my computer and Lee Anne’s printer, I started on the 60 small head shots that would be cut out and put into wooden frames that are cutout to look like a body. The kids decorated them yesterday. My first attempt came out with a couple of horrible-looking green prints that would be perfect for a Halloween party, but maybe not so good for a Christian children’s craft. I ran the diagnostic and it indicated that one cartridge was empty, and the other nearly so. Did it drain out overnight? I replaced both cartridges, and after a reboot and a paper jam, was back to printing out a stack of photos.


By the end of the first day, I’d managed to get a stack of 5×7″ pages printed with a total of 43 head shots that were later cut out in circles to insert in the stick people frames. On the second day, I started to print off what would eventually amount to almost 100 4×6″ prints. I wouldn’t have been able to mass produce so many prints in such a short time if I hadn’t brought along a laptop and a copy of Adobe’s Lightroom software.



The printer turned out to be a high-maintenance item. Besides my daily problems with feeding it cartridges (I eventually used up 6 of the 11 cartridges that I’d brought with me), the printer also needed a lot of feeding. Several times I walked away from the printer for 30 minutes to photograph and video some of the other projects, and came back to find that it had run out of paper or had jammed.

Pictures to fit the decorated frames were printed by the end of the day, so I started a second run of the pictures used for the head shots. This time, instead of printing off just their heads, I printed off the entire picture. Some of the kids had put a lot of heart into the posing process, and I figured they’d be disappointed without seeing the entire photo (also, I figured some of the older kids might not be as excited to see their head on top of a popsicle stick).

By the end of our stay, I’d made over 175 prints.


We decided that it’d be fun to stick all the pictures onto a couple of the dividers in the centre so that everybody could see everybody else’s portrait. The younger kids seemed to get a real kick out of seeing their older brothers and sisters hanging up on the wall.