Monthly Archives: February 2008

Grab Shot

Driving south along Highway 1, the Big Sur coast was gorgeous in early February. Nicky napped in the car, and Julian popped out with me every time I stopped for a view or a photo.

Photographers talk about “grab shots”; the definition is a situation in which you just pick up the camera, aim it without premeditation, and press the shutter release. That’s pretty much what Big Sur is like, and this photo in any case. No matter where you point your lens it is sure to be photogenic. Though I do like in the composition of this photo the unpremediated way in which the curve of Route 1 mirrors in the distance the far more vast curve of the crashing breaker.

[Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR zoom lens at 22mm (33mm in 35mm terms) with image stabilization engaged, 1/500 of a second at f/11 and ISO 100, hand held.]

Posted in Landscape, Photography

Processing Noise

I’ve been shooting in low light at ISO 6400, partly on the grounds that my Nikon D300 is remarkably low noise, and partly on the grounds that noise can be used as part of the aeshetic of an image. My photos of the jellyfish in the aquarium tanks at Monterey are examples of this kind of high ISO work. However, I do find I need to selectively post-process for noise with these images.

Jellyfish 3

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I processed these jellyfish photos, all shot at extremely high ISOs, for noise using Noise Ninja as a plug-in to Photoshop CS3. (Noise Ninja can run as a standalone or inside the Photoshop environment.)

With one twist (I’ll get to my variation in a moment), I used Noise Ninja in its default mode. This means opening Noise Ninja, profiling the image by clicking a button, tweaking the filter settings for strength, and then applying the noise reduction.

My own deviation from the tried-and-true starts by working on a duplicate layer, rather than the original. This is a best practice for Photoshop in any case. Then I use a layer mask to hide the Noise Ninja noise-reduced layer, and selectively paint in portions of this layer. Typically, I’ll work with two noise-reduction layers at different strengths, because even a very noisy image isn’t necessarily noisy all over. I also want the freedom to apply Noise Ninja selectively, and at different strengths, to different parts of my photos. I’ll leave some areas untouched.


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It’s worth noting that I use a similar selectivity-via-layers-and-masking approach when it comes to sharpening. Furthermore, I only sharpen luminance (black and white) and not the chroma (color) channels of a photo. My main sharpening tool is the paradoxically named Unsharp Mask Photoshop filter. Leaving chroma channels unsharpened happens to have a beneficial effect on the aesthetics of noise, so this kind of selective sharpening is really a help when you start with a noisy image.

Jellyfish #2

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Posted in Photography, Photoshop Techniques


Happy Valentine’s Day!

May you be in love and happy with your sweetie in a most commendably non-commercial way!

Hearts on Fire in the Sky

This image of Hearts on Fire in the Sky is a Photoshop composite collage from almost three years ago, one of my first attempts at the genre.

Posted in Bemusements, Photoshop Techniques

Harold’s Yosemite Book Is Here

My book, The Photographers Guide to Yosemite & the High Sierra, is now in stock and shipping from Amazon.

The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite & the High Sierra

From the back cover: The scenic wonders of Yosemite and the mountains that surround it—the high Sierra—attract visitors from around the world. If you are planning to visit Yosemite with your camera, photography will be important part of your trip to the area that John Muir called “the greatest temple” in the world. The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite and the Sierras provides insider information about exactly how to find the most scenic vistas in Yosemite and the Sierras, and how to go about taking great photos once you are there. You’ll learn about weather, photography and phases of the sun and the moon, and the best times of year to visit and photograph specific attractions. You’ll find out about the logistics of visiting Yosemite and the Sierras off-season—and discover the stunning photographic payoffs that can reward off-season travel.

Even if you plan to travel no further than your armchair (beside a roaring fireplace) you’ll enjoy the luscious photography that fills The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite and the Sierras. Yosemite is iconic in the history of photography and The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite and the Sierras presents an all new, digital way of seeing Yosemite.

Posted in Writing, Yosemite

Lensbaby Poppy Duet

After photographing a Papaver nudicaule being born, for the next few days I continued in the same damn the torpedoes full speed ahead hand held ignore the noise high ISO fashion, taking photos with my Lensbaby 3G as the poppies emerged.

Both photos: Nikon D300, Lensbaby 3G, hand held. Photo above: +10 close-up filter, no aperture ring, 1/250 of a second, ISO 100. Photo below: +4 close-up filter, f/8 aperture ring, 1/125 of second, ISO 2000.

Lensbaby Poppy

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Posted in Flowers, Lensbaby, Photography


This is a photo of a nave, or aisle, in the church at the old mission of San Juan Bautista. The mission was founded in 1797, and the church completed in 1812, the widest of all the old California mission churches with three naves.

On a sunny day, as it was when I took this photo, the lighting in the church is stark, high contrast, and at the same time warm. This unusual mixture of light qualities is what got me interested in making the photo. As I composed the image, I felt that the quality of light had been intended in 1797, and was the same then, when the mission was founded, as it is today.

The bright California sun and old architecture seems to encourage this warm but high-contrast lighting; check out the photo below from the surgeon’s quarters in old Fort Point:


[Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR zoom lens at 18mm (27mm in 35mm terms), 3 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Photography


My second oldest son Nicky likes small, cuddly things. He was definitely taken aback by the raucous fields of elephant seals, and was sitting quietly looking away from the beach. Suddenly Nicky pointed out this rabbit to me, who, to lapse into Richard Adams’s Lapine vocabulary, stayed tharn long enough for me to capture. Perhaps bunny was, like Nicky, observing the elephant seals and photographer and quietly saying regarding one and all, “Siflay hraka.”

[Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR zoom lens at 200mm (300mm in 35mm terms) with image stabilization engaged, 1/160 of a second at f/6.3 and ISO 100, hand held.]

Posted in Bemusements, Photography


Yawn scratch bellow sniff rut flip bellow yawn, watching the world go by! I photographed these elephant seals on the California coast about ten miles north of Old San Simeon. (Not, as has been suggested at Ano Nuevo on the south San Mateo coast, I’ve got to get there some time.) This was on my recent road trip with my two oldest sons after the Moneterey Aquarium and before Hearst Castle.

From the viewpoint of photo composition, I didn’t know quite what to do with the vast and raucous field of elephant seals, playing fighting, pooping, and mostly lying like some awful parody of our own civilization. Looking at this scene, I felt I needed some visual counterpoint to the drab colors of the sand beach and these gigantic, weird, and wonderful beasts. When the elephant seal in this photo yawned, I was ready to capture the pink of his mouth, which together with the bird nearby makes this composition work through contrast: the eye is drawn to the pink, regardless of the activity in the rest of the photo. Only gradually does the full extent of the scene sink in. The effect is perhaps best viewed larger.

[Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR zoom lens at 200mm (300mm in 35mm terms) with image stabilization engaged, 1/250 of a second at f/8 and ISO 100, hand held.]

Posted in Bemusements, Photography, Road Trip


My older sons, Julian and Nicky, and I are doing the kid tourist thing. I photographed these jellyfish today at the Monterey Aquarium handheld, with the ISO boosted through the roof to 6400. What fantastic colors and shapes!

[Nikon D300, 18-200mm VR zoom lens with image stabilization engaged at 82mm (123mm in 35mm terms), 1/80 of a second at f/5 and ISO 6,400, handheld.]

Posted in Photography

Being Born

Within the short life span of the poppy flower (Papaver nudicaule shown here), being born, or emerging from the pod, is a significant percentage of the total. Even so, the duration of emergence is short enough that it can be over if you go inside for another lens. This has actually happened to me: by the time I got back a few minutes later, the flower had emerged.

I photographed this poppy birth just before dusk on the first sunny day after a period of rain. I knew it was dark, and the flower was moving in the breeze, so I needed a fast shutter speed (and there was no point in a tripod). In the situation, I decided to take the noise is beautiful approach, and used an ISO of 3200 at 1/400 of a second with the f/5.6 disk on my Lensbaby 3G (equipped with a +10 close-up lens).

I’ve been asked about the Lensbaby a number of times, for example: “What version of the Lensbaby do you use? Are you happy with it? Any problems? I’m considering getting one and would love to talk to an actual user about it..”

I started with a Lensbaby 2.0 and am now using the Lensbaby 3G, which I consider a great improvement because you can lock the lens into position. I have had no problems with my Lensbaby whatsoever. I completely recommend the Lensbaby if you understand what it is: a special purpose lens that can create unique images and unlock creativity. However, it’s certainly not a general purpose lens, and there are many situations in which I would never use it.

Related links: My Poppies on Flickr, Lensbaby on Photoblog 2.0.

Posted in Flowers, Lensbaby, Photography

Press Proofs

In a previous story, I showed imposition proofs for my Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers laid out on our living room floor. I noted that the book is due out in the next few months, published by O’Reilly, and is being printed in Italy. As I explained, imposition proofs are used to determine the layout of the book into signatures for printing, and are not intended to be used to check color. Each signature is a large sheet that goes through the printing press and is cut up into individual pages of the book.

In contrast to the imposition proofs, the signature sheets shown in the photo that runs with this story are used to check color. Together with Dennis, the production editor on the book, we chose the toughest signature in the book. The printer used a proofing press to create the press proofs of this tough signature. These proofs are supposed to provide color samples very close to the final product.

There are four different versions of the press proof sheet shown in the photo, once again on our living room floor.

Starting on the upper left, and moving clockwise, the first sheet shows the pages we generated as proofs from our CMYK Epson 4800. These pages were produced using the ICM profile provided by the printer, and theoretically should be very close to the pages produced by the printer.

The next sheet to the right was produced on the proofing press using normal 4-color process CMYK inks. Apparently, the printer felt this sheet didn’t have quite the punch of the version we had provided, so on the next sheet they substituted rhodamine red, a more vibrant ink, for the process magenta. The final sheet was generated using 50% process magenta and 50% rhodamine red.

Dennis was over today in our living room looking at these prints with us. This is partially an economic decision, because substituting a color is an expense. We pretty much ruled out the 100% rhodamine red version; it does punch up the colors, but in some cases it punches too much.

The truth is that all three versions of this signature, and it is a tough signature, look pretty good. I think the 50% rhodamine and 50% magenta is probably the best choice. Dennis is getting on the phone with Italy to make sure that if he specifies that half-and-half blend that it will be consistent throughout the press run, and (God willing) on reprints.

Although I’m really excited about the way the book is looking from the press proofs, whichever choice is made it won’t look best on all the photos in the signature, or indeed all photos in the book. Printing is not an exact science, and like life itself involves compromise.

Posted in Photography

Active D-Lighting

In my review of the Nikon D300, I promised to look into its Active D-Lighting feature. Besides pure intellectual curiousity, and the deep desire to be helpful to my readers, I needed to know how to manage this camera setting. As I noted in an earlier post, Active D-Lighting is written up as a kind of in-camera extension of dynamic range. In fact, I assume that the “D” in D-Lighting is short for “dynamic.”

The manual for the D300 puts it like this: “Active D-Lighting preserves details in highlights and shadows, creating photos with natural contrast. Use for high contrast scenes, for example when photographing brightly lit outdoor scenery through a door or window or taking pictures of shaded subjects on a sunny day.”

As described in the manual, Active D-Lighting is potentially a very compelling feature because digital technology can be used in real time to record a great range of lights and darks in a photo.

Settings and Caveats

To set Active D-Lighting, you use the D300’s shooting menu. You scroll down to the Active D-Lighting item until it is highlighted, press the right arrow key, and select from four possible Active D-Lighting settings: Off, Low, Normal, and High. The manual gives no information about the relative impact of these settings, hence my need to find out empirically (and this blog story).

The caveats you’ll find in the manual regarding Active D-Lighting are that photos with Active D-Lighting engaged take longer to process (this is presumably because more information is being written to memory) and that the lgiht meter must be set to matrix metering (okay, since this is probably how you’d have it set anyhow).

The manual also notes that “Active D-Lighting” is not the same thing as “D-Lighting”, the latter being a post hoc fix to dynamic range available in the camera’s retouch menu after a photo has already been shot and saved to memory.

As far as I can tell, although this isn’t noted in the D300 documentation, Active D-Lighting also does not work when the camera is set to fully manual mode (more on this later).


Active D-Lighting is designed for situations with high contrast from light to dark. This is what the manual states, and it is also common sense. If Actibe D-Lighting workes right, these high contrast situations result in images that demonstrate a High Dynamic Range, HDR for short. Therefore, I tested Active D-Lighting with a series of exposures in high dynamic conditions.

I shot the photo immediately below in the surgeon’s quarters in old Fort Point under the Golden Gate as part of one of these series. The photo shows a fairly extreme dynamic range between the bright sunlight coming in through the opening in the stairwell and the dark shadow of the closet on the left. It’s the best of the series (described below) that I shot.


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The photo far below is of the staircase in our house, also with a high dynamic range. Like the Fort Point photo, it’s the best result of experimenting with Active D-Lighting settings.

For each series, I shot a series of photos at all four Active D-Lighting settings. For each Active D-Lighting setting, I made an exposure using Programmed automatic, Aperture-preferred, and Manual metering. Obviously, this resulted in a 4X3 grid of exposures in each series.

The D300 manual is correct when it suggests that turning on Active D-Lighting reduces the overall exposure (with the degree of this effect determined by the setting, High reducing the exposure to a greater degree than Normal, and Normal having more impact than Low. At the same time, the Active D-Lighting effect does preserve some details in areas that might otherwise go black, for example the floor in the photo of Fort Point above. Active D-Lighting was most impressive in reducing blow-out in the bright parts of the image while not losing detail in shadow areas.

Still, overall I was disappointed in the impact of Active D-Lighting when I made A to B comparisons. First of all, the setting seemed to do nothing when I used manual exposure settings. This is unfortunate for me, because the bulk of my exposures are manual.

Secondly, the impact of Active D-Lighting overall was just not huge. It tames photos with great dynamic range slightly, but not enough to salvage images with extreme dynamic range. There is no quick fix, at least yet. My opinion is that automated HDR post-processing solutions tend to look artificial and vulgar, so one still needs to multiprocess RAW files by hand (possibly using extreme bracketing).


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And where will I set Active D-Lighting as I prowl the world looking for great photos? My conclusion based on my test series is that it really doesn’t matter much, so I’ll probably leave the setting at the default, which is Normal.

Posted in Photography

Hanging On

In a sunny intermission between squalls of rain I photographed this rain drop hanging onto a climbing geranium blossom. Even fully stopped down, in the sunlight the exposure was only for a fraction of a second, and the next second the drop had fallen down and was gone. As I dismantled my equipment, a passerby asked if I was photographing a groundhog (yesterday was Groundhog Day!).

“No,” I replied, “just a water drop.”

“Well, at least they can’t see their own shadow.”

Or, maybe water drops do see shadows in their short lives.

[Nikon D300, 200mm f/4 macro lens (300mm in 35mm terms), 36mm extension tube, Nikon 6T close-up lens, 1/6 of a second at f/40 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Flowers, Photography, Water Drops

Stair Aye

In the spirit of Arlo Guthrie’s somewhat picaresque song Alice’s Restaurant, in which a narrative about the Vietnam-era draft ostensibly starts with a tale of taking out the trash, this story behind this image starts with a bad haircut.

The haircut, and it included a dye job, belonged to my dear wife Phyllis, and the dye job was very red. As she said, the ensemble made her look like a “big strawberry.” She went back to the salon to get them to fix it, and came back looking like a “big frosted strawberry.” Normally, one should beware of using the word “big” in the context of one’s spouse on one’s blog, but I think since the phrase was hers, and considering the entire set of circumstances, which may become clearer to my readers as time goes on, I can get away with it this once.

Anyhow, getting back to the bad-dye-and-hair-cut, she had to go into San Francisco on Friday for emergency repairs, and I was her chaffeur. To pass the time while I waited, I took photos (of course!).

This image started with the roughly spiral staircase in the San Francisco General Hospital parking structure. I photographed down the well of the staircase in cloudy but bright weather using my digital fisheye lens on tripod for maximum depth of field and area coverage (this partially explains the weird converging lines and wide area of coverage).

Back home with a definitely aesthetically enhanced wife, I played in Photoshop to extend the depth and complexity of the stairs, and added an eye of a newt at the bottom of the stair well. If only I could have used Photoshop on Phyllis’s hair, I would have saved a lot of trouble.

Related images: Resistance to Spirals is Futile; Endless Stair; Spirals (Shell and Stair).

Posted in Bemusements, Photography

Above the Wave

I climbed a rock with a commanding view of the chambers and passages of the Wave. I was above this world, and apparently alone. I set my camera on its tripod back from the edge so that it was deep within the shadow, then used the self timer to photograph my shadow on the edge of this world.

[Nikon D200, 24mm in 35mm terms, 1/80 of a second at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Landscape, Photography, The Wave