What to make of Bodie?

The Cain House Past
The Cain House Past by I Nancy, on Flickr

There are advantages and disadvantages of being married to a raving railroad fanatic. The advantages is that he loves an adventure and anything involving trains and railroad history. The disadvantage is that, even when you are on an Eastern Sierras fall color trip, the historic gold-rush town of Bodie, just north of Mono Lake, is one of the first stops on the trip. Go to Bodie, go directly to Bodie, do not stop and take pictures of the flaming mountain scapes on Conway Summit, do not dally in the yellow and orange Aspen forests or creekside on the many canyons and creeksides, do not collect 200 photographs.

But the weather was incredibly photography friendly for our afternoon jaunt to Bodie and my husband drove the dirt roads which, though shaken and rattled, our trusty silver Prius managed just fine.

As I walked the streets I started my visioning process, a process I learned through the writings of David DuChemin’s Within The Frame series. David talks about creating a mental checklist of all the things you feel and observe at your photographic location. Bodie is an odd town and a microcosm of California’s gold-rush history. One of the largest and most successful gold mining towns in California. At it’s height, around 1880, it had a population of ten thousand people, hundreds of saloons, and was renowned for its lawlessness. It is a town of bitter winter cold and dramatic summer heat. The boom was short lived and began a stead decline from 1881. In 1932 a fire, fabled to be started by 2 1/2 year old “Bodie Bill“, destroyed over 90% of the town.

It was cloudy enough to provide that big softbox-in-the-sky effect but with just enough patches of blue texture to capture dramatic patterns. The builds have an undisturbed patina and in a state of “arrested decay”. I wanted to capture the notion of Bodie still inhabited with each building alive telling the stories of its dramatic past. With a wide-angle lens, and some judicious HDR,  here is my approach to breath life into these structures so that they can tell us their story in their own words.

No Sermons Lately
No Sermons Lately by I Nancy, on Flickr

Figueroa Mountain Oaks – Subtle in HDR

Figueroa Mountain Oaks

I’ve heard that the best way to learn is to do, but I think the best way to learn is to teach. This weekend I was working on an overview of HDR photography for the Thousand Oaks Photo Group. My teaching philosophy is around motivation more then instruction. If you can motivate the learner into wanting to use a technique, the instruction takes care of itself.

I needed a set of images to explain why to use HDR and I remembered some images I took at Figueroa Mountain last spring. Figueroa Mountain is a beautiful place spread with old oaks and fields. We went for the wildflowers, but they were a bust this year. We had to satisfy ourselves with the groves of trees and mountain air. The oaks were just sprouting their light-green tender leaves and the sky was beautiful but bright. These were the conditions for neutral-density graduated filters or… HDR. I bracketed many scenes but never got back to fully process the shoot. This weekend was my opportunity to do some experimentation with the goal of creating a concrete set of guidance for approaching HDR.

My use of HDR is subtle and I typically shoot in 1-stop exposures. I use Photomatix Pro on my RAW images for the tone-mapping and then Lightroom and Photoshop for additional adjustments.

Figueroa Mountain Oaks

Stand Tall

Stand Tall
Stand Tall by I Nancy, on Flickr

Today’s hike was at Malibu Creek State Park with good photo buddies Jerry, Connie, and Hutch. Jerry, Connie and I were trying out our gear management systems (err, I just made that up – how we carry our gear) for a trip to Utah that we are taking at the end of the month. I was testing out how I would carrying my new Induro CT114 carbon fibre tripod and Acratech GP Ballhead. With the whole setup weighting a bit less than 4lbs they were both a pleasure to use and to carry. I mostly just carried it across my back draped diagonally across my body. The biggest hitch was managing how the camera, tripod and hat straps were intertwined.

“Gear is good, but vision is better” (thank you David DuChemin) so I must get to talking about my vision for these images.

In September it is starting to feel like fall in most parts of the US, but not in beautiful sunny southern California. Here is is still full on summer. Highs between upper 80 and 100 F. Today was about 84. The sun is bright and harsh and all the bad stuff for taking photographs. I’m not one to make my living from HDR images, but I knew before I left the house that HDR was a technique I would need today to keep the exposure and lighting under control. Also, this little grove of redwoods and just that, a little grove. A little anomaly in what is mostly brush, sycamores, and California oaks. And in comparison to the big redwoods in northern California, they are quite small. I wanted to exaggerate their height and isolate them to make it feel like we were surrounded by redwoods. Setting up the tripod I was conscious to keep the sky as filled with branches as possible and create some dramatic angles. f/9 for good depth of field, 28mm for fairly wide angle. In this shot I setup specifically to shoot into the sun. It is actually one of my favorite things to do to add additional drama and power to a shot. Since I was shooting HDR, I knew I could recover the tree shadows in the exposure brackets.

Here are two more from the day: one capturing the spread of the branches and the other as if the redwood was posing for a classic portrait.

Braching Out
Braching Out by I Nancy, on Flickr

Portrait View
Portrait View by I Nancy, on Flickr

The Good Stuff

The Good Stuff

Artist and Geek collided for this shot at the Ventura County Fair.Night at the Fair

Like a hunter in pursuit of that elusive prey, I’ve been in pursuit of night-time fair shots for some time. Mostly they end up in the bit-bucket, a jumble of over exposed lights and chaotic people. (A notable exception is my 2nd Place Fair Theme win at this years Ventura County Fair. It was taken last summer at the Santa Monica Pier). Given that luck and quantity weren’t helping with the quality of my output, a bit more thought was needed. Time to get the Artist and the Geek to talk to one another.

I’ll explain this one like I have a few others since listening to David duChemin’s CreativeLIVE Vision Driven Photography webinar. First a list of what I saw and felt. Then lists of how I went about the Frame, Capture, and the Process using the list as a guide.

The List – what I saw and felt, what I want to convey in the photography

  • Lights and bright colors
  • Excitement
  • Vendor booths of junk, pure junk
  • People, together and separate
  • Colors
  • Light in the darkness
  • People are part of the scene, but not the scene itself

The Frame – what will I put in the frame

  • I really wanted to see people interacting with the brightly lit vendor food booths. Here I saw these three friends in front of this booth. There was a lot to attract me to this subject. They were there for quite some time so I had time to think and compose. They were well back lit. It was a group of 3 (perfect!). There were good colors and contrasts of the group – red, black, and white.
  • The background booth was as colorful and audacious as it gets – The Good Stuff – all junk, pure junk. Then think about the friendship of the group of 3, hanging at the VC Fair for the evening. Now, isn’t that the Good Stuff too?
  • The rest just sort of fell into place – nice oblique angle, balance using the rule of thirds, timing getting the rest of the path clear.

The Capture – what camera settings, lenses and why

  • The oblique angle gives me some excitement
  • The exposure was the difficult part. The obvious solution to high-contrast situations is HDR – so I bracketed -2, 0, +2. This would allow me to capture the detail inside the building as well as the outside. I also knew that I would need to reblend in the middle-exposure of the people in order to avoid ghosting of movement.
  • 55mm – really just a standard street length. Let the building and the scene do the speaking.

The Process – post processing

  • I’m not a fan of wild HDR, but it is quite useful for these high-contrast scenes. For this I wanted lots of detail within the image, but keep the people as silhouettes with just the edge light. A combo of Photomatix from the RAW images and tweaks of the tonemapped image in Lightroom.
  • Then I processed the middle exposure to match the HDR and using Photoshop and layers, I masked the people in over the HDR to remove the ghosting effects of the people movement.

The result is a bright and dark scene. The colors of the fair and the emotion of friendship.

Practice: A little HDR, A little high-key


View Large On Black


View Large On Black

Another outing with the Thousand Oaks Digital Photo Group, this time to LA’s Farmer’s Market and The Grove on the corner of Fairfax and 3rd. The Farmer’s Market is no longer a Farmer’s Market but rather an historic set of buildings with food vendors. Right adjacent was built The Grove, an outdoor upscale mall. Wandering around had the allure of being an interesting palate was was also sort of a photographers nightmare. Aside from the unshaded florescents and window glare, taking pictures of people in captive places is always a hit or miss proposition. Will they let you? Once you ask them will they continue to be relaxed and continue to go about their business? What are the ethics of taking street portraits with a 300mm lens unnoticed? (Not my style – actually).

But the day wasn’t a loss. I think about photography much like I did my music and you have to “practice, man, practice”. So I thought of the day as practice, and practice I  did.

These two images were the result of that practice. At the end of the Grove is a clothier – Abercrombie & Fitch. They specialize is upscale downscale clothing just like the clothing you see being worn by this model in the doorway. I was walking around with two lenses – 17-40mm f/4 and 50mm f/1.4. These two were taken with the wide angle. It was kind of bright and glaring outside and she was standing in the shade of the doorway. I figured there were two possible approaches – HDR or high-key exposed for the doorway.

Here I show you one of each.

(BTW, not sure if you can see on these web-versions, but the detail captured by the 5dMkII is unbelievable)