Category Archives: Bemusements

Falcon Motorcycle

The other day I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to photograph a Falcon Motorcycle. These motorcycles are one-of-a-kind completely handmade works of art. As I particularly enjoy photographing machinery it was a real treat getting to photograph a machine that had been so carefully and artfully constructed.

Falcon Motorcycle by Harold Davis

Falcon Motorcycle (color) © Harold Davis—Click image to view large

To capture the subtle shapes and forms of the motorcycle’s engine it will surprise no one who reads my blog to learn that I used High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques. This image was created from seven exposures. Each exposure was shot at f/11 and ISO 200. I used a tripod, and manually bracketed the shutter speeds in a range from two seconds to 1/200 of a second.

Falcon Motorcycle by Harold Davis

Falcon Motorcycle (B&W) © Harold Davis—Click image to view large

In post production I combined the exposures using Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2 and hand-layering in Photoshop.

My original thought had been to produce a monochromatic final image, but when I saw the results in color I decided the color version looked pretty good too!

I converted the color version to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2, Photoshop Black & White adjustment layers, and a monochromatic HDR version processed from the original seven files.

These images will make stunning prints I think on Moab’s wonderful pearlized metallic Slickrock paper.

By the way, I’ve been asked a number of times recently why I often choose to shoot my HDR sequences using manual shutter speed bracketing rather than in-camera auto bracketing (which at first blush would seem easier). The answer, as I explain on page 76 of Creating HDR Photos, is that auto bracketing programs do not in fact capture enough extended dynamic range. So if you want to create HDR multi-shot imagery like mine you, too, will need to bracket manually. I plan to write a future blog story on the mechanics of keeping the camera absolutely still while one manually brackets.

Also posted in HDR, Monochrome, Photography

Too much information

An abandoned cement field in West Oakland near the docks was filled with large, rusting metal pipes, maybe ten feet in diameter. What was their original purpose? Why were they left behind? Who knows.

The vast area was fenced, but it had obviously been entered many times—getting in was no problem. Once inside I felt the need to stay alert regarding my surroundings, although as far as I could tell I shared the scene only with trash, weeds, wall art, and the gray sky of a misty day. The damp, overcast weather helped saturate the colors you see in this image.

Pipes, West Oakland by Harold Davis

Pipes, West Oakland © Harold Davis—Click to view larger

As I often do these days in the field, I manually bracketed for HDR. Usually, this means about a 10 EV exposure range—plus, of course, whatever one can tease out of the RAW files. Specifically, for this image I shot ten exposures ranging from 1/200 of a second at the darkest end to 4 seconds at the lightest end. Each exposure was shot at 130mm, f/36, and ISO 200, using a tripod.

It turns out that this was definitely too much information! Running the combined exposures through HDR processing led to an average looking image that showed the interior of the pipes along with assorted booze bottles and trash. This was definitely not the look I wanted to achieve because I knew things would be much more dramatic with a contrast range between the blackness of the pipe interior and the riotous color of the graffiti on the wall behind.

So I reprocessed the image, mostly using a single exposure, to enhance the high contrast drama, adding a little color to the central paintings using a low opacity version rendered by Nik HDR Efex Pro 2.

If you look carefully, you can still see an old booze bottle caught between the two pipes. I could have retouched this out, but decided to leave the bottle in the image as a reminder of the authentic environment this image was made in.

The moral, of course, is that there is no real problem overshooting in the field. If I don’t need all the information, I can just discard it at the processing stage. Better to have it in case I need it, and end up not using it, than to regret undershooting. As experienced photographers know, mostly you can’t go back because things are never the same twice.

Also posted in HDR, Photography

Seeing beyond the obvious

In the great seafaring Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, the bad guys often get their just comeuppance using a ruse de guerre that in hindsight should have been obvious. Admiral Ramage, the protagonist of a somewhat less literary but still entertaining eponymous naval series by Dudley Pope, puts it this way: we expect to see the obvious, therefore the obvious is what we do see, even when there is something else going on.

The photographer’s job is to see beyond the obvious.

Grace Cathedral Ceiling by Harold Davis

Grace Cathedral Ceiling © Harold Davis

At the very least, seeing beyond the obvious means being acutely aware of one’s environment. Visual explorations help, as does looking up, down, and to the sides. The view straight ahead is not the only one! Ignore preconceptions and prior expectations whenever possible.

In this spirit, when I recently visited San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral with my camera, the view that most interested me was straight up, with the exposed structure supporting the ceiling looking for all the world like the skeleton of some large beast.

Also posted in HDR, Photography, San Francisco Area

In Clarion Alley

Alleys can be magical places. Just think of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. The Mission District of San Francisco has a number of alleys, made magical by the artists who have decorated them. Some of these artists have gone on to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, I have no idea who painted this garage door in Clarion Alley as I could not find a signature.

Unknown Artist by Harold Davis

Unknown Artist © Harold Davis—click the image to view larger

To make this image I shot five exposures with my camera on a tripod using manual exposure mode. Each exposure was exposed at 35mm, f/11 and ISO 200. My shutter speeds ranged between 1/10 of a second and 1/200 of a second. I combined the five exposures using Nik HDR Efex Pro.

Also posted in HDR, San Francisco Area

Portraits in Fire

At the recent Photography with Harold Davis night event at Sutro Baths, my friend and colleague Steven Christenson lit the night with scouring pads and magnesium. If you are interested in learning more about the night magic that Steven creates, check out his StarCircleAcademy blog.

Man in the Middle by Harold Davis

Man in the Middle © Harold Davis

Spinning Fire by Harold Davis

Spinning Fire © Harold Davis

Also posted in Digital Night

Heirloom Heart

Browsing the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables at Berkeley Bowl, this heirloom tomato called out to me for photography if not for my salad. There is no doubt that when positioned and lit correctly it resembles a sensuous heart.

Heirloom Heart by Harold Davis

Heirloom Heart © Harold Davis

I shot the tomato on a black velvet background using controlled natural light. The image you see is a hand-HDR blend of four exposures made with my 85mm tilt-shift macro lens. Each exposure was at ISO 100 and an effective aperture of f/64. My shutter speeds ranged from 1/30 of a second to 8 seconds.

Also posted in Hearts, Photography

Harold Davis Workshop Updates

Last weekend’s Macros and Close-Ups workshop was held at the western end of Point Reyes in a romantic and historic Coastguard Lifeboat building. Saturday was foggy, but we were surrounded by sea lions, heard the sounds of the waves, worked hard, played hard, and had fun with photography.

This was a great group of photographers who brought fun toys and artifacts, such as the optical plastic spheres shown in the photograph. In the reflections, you’ll see the rail used to lower boats into the water for emergency rescues!

Optical Quality by Harold Davis

Optical Quality © Harold Davis

Workshop updates: Many people have asked me, the Dark of the Moon Bristlecone Pine at Night workshop in mid-August is now full (actually, it is over-subscribed). We do have a few openings:

  • The Tao of Photography workshop with Harold Davis at Green Dragon Temple, August 3-6, 2012 has room for three more photographers. This is a spectacular location, and likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to share the life of a working Zen monastery while taking advantage of the photographic possibilities inherent in the  organic flower garden that rolls down to the ocean as well as the dramatic landscape of the Marin Headlands.
  • We have room for only two more photographers in the Photograph Paris with Harold Davis workshop, April 28 – May 5, 2013. This workshop will focus on Paris in bloom, Paris at night, and Paris in black & white, reinterpreting for ourselves some of the images that have been captured in paint and on film by many great artists, including Daguerre, Monet, Atget, Picasso, and Erwitt.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about either of these opportunities—and space, as they say, is subject to availability.

My sponsor, Moab Paper, has arranged for me to show my work, and speak about digital vision and craft, at B&H in New York on September 20, 2012. Here is some information about this presentation.

I’m also in the planning phase for a variety of events related to the publication of my new books Photographing Waterdrops: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis and Creating HDR Photos: The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Photography, and a trip to the east coast in September. Stay tuned for more details!

Also posted in Photography, Workshops

Expecting the Unexpected

As a photographer, I am often reminded to expect the unexpected. The expected can produce workaday good pictures but it is the unexpected that produces great photos. Since fortune favors the prepared mind, how can we prepare for the unexpected?

To some degree, it is not possible to prepare for the unexpected because the unexpected is by definition exogenous. The decisive moment is decisive because something is happening outside of the normal course of things to alter the normal flow of events. In other words, unexpected subject matter is unexpected because, well, one doesn’t expect it.

But there are some steps we can take to prepare to take advantage of the unexpected:

  • Be ready. Know your gear so you won’t fumble. This means photographing often and regularly, much as a musician practices their instrument. Keep your camera accessible (because you can’t take a photo without your camera!). You don’t have to shoot all the time, but when you are in photographic mode be alert, on guard, and prepared to photograph on a dime.
  • Be mindful. Listen to your inner voice, it is probably wiser than you think. I always try to listen when my inner voice tells me there is something to photograph, even when I am tired or hungry, or just don’t want to photograph any more. Photograph is a bit like jazz: it thrives on improvisation (even in apparently controlled situations, like when shooting a still life in the studio).
  • Be decisive. The unexpected moves quickly, and there is often no time to be lost.
  • Be flexible. The most important trait you’ll need as a photographer to take advantage of the unexpected is flexibility. Look all around you and up and down, not just straight ahead. Out shooting landscapes? Fine—but don’t turn away other photographic opportunities such as close-ups or interiors that present themselves.
Bunker by Harold Davis

Bunker © Harold Davis

From the summit of Hawk Hill I expected to shoot the moon rising over the San Francisco skyline. A small bunker, left over from the days when the San Francisco coast was fortified, caught my eye instead. The interior of the bunker was plastered with graffiti. I used a 10.5mm digital fisheye lens with my camera on the tripod to make six exposures, with each exposure at f/13 and ISO 200. Shutter speeds varied between 1/200 of a second (darkest) and 2/5 of a second (lightest). I combined the exposures using Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro Photoshop plugin.

For more of my thoughts on this subject, check out my article on, Expecting the Unexpected.

Also posted in HDR, Photography, Writing

Who owns the night?

Who owns the night? In many California parks and public venues clearly not you or me. Anyone who has spent much time photographing at night has certainly experienced being kicked out of state parks and other supposedly public spaces after sunset.

Case in point: the other day on the spur of the moment I was shooting before sunset from an overlook above Purisima Beach just south of Half Moon Bay (see photo). It was clear and beautiful, but cold and windy in the late afternoon. I was the only person there.

Purisima Beach at Sunset by Harold Davis

Purisima Beach at Sunset © Harold Davis

This land was preserved with the help of the Pensinsula Open Space Trust (POST)—click here for the POST story of this genuine accomplishment.

My appreciation for the wild landscape and the accomplishment in preserving it for prosperity was diminished when a docent arrived to tell me I had to leave at sunset. Personally, I had no problem with the docent, who was affable, and who informed me he was paid a small stipend. But it is surprising that money can be found for this in a day and age in which parks are closing for lack of funds.

I also don’t get the thinking behind ejecting people who genuinely want to use the land in benign ways—like night photographers.

I started this story by asking, “who owns the night?” A better question might have been, “For whose benefit are lands like the Purisima Trail being preserved?” I think this preservation serves the purposes of neighboring land owners and farmers (nothing wrong with them, by the way) rather than those like me who want to “take only photos and leave only footprints.”

As an action item, I would urge public land trusts and others charged with the administration of parkland to also consider the interests of those who like to be out in the night when establishing policies. This is the stance of the US National Parks, which do not restrict access at night. The night should belong to all of us—and if you take away the freedom to be out in the wilderness landscape at night we all lose a great deal.

To learn more about my night photography, check out my Night Photography Gallery, the Night category on my blog, and my Night photos on Flickr.

Also posted in Digital Night, Landscape, Photography, Writing

Fellow Traveller

One way that digital photography differs from film photography is that you never are truly finished with an image.

Technologies may change and improve—and frequently do. For example, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is often improved in its ability to process RAW files each time there is a new release of Photoshop. Should I go back and reprocess images using the new, improved engine? Maybe.

Another example is our new printer, which can create prints with a far wider color gamut that was possible in the past—but only if the workflow one used to process the image files fortuitously anticipated this increase in gamut through a perspicacious choice of color space.

More widespread than these technologically-based reasons for going back to the digital darkroom is the client who indicates that they mostly like an image—but will buy it, use it, pay for many more like it only if I work some more on the image file. This scenario has kept me pretty busy on a number of different fronts lately.

Road Less Travelled by Harold Davis

Road Less Travelled © Harold Davis

I’m not always happy about going back to work some more on something I thought was finished, but it is usually a process that provides some artistic insight and inspiration—and hopefully pleases a paying client, and gets my work into print. It’s also wonderful to contemplate how one digital image can be multi-purposed in so may different ways with a few quick tricks with layers, blending modes, masks, and the Paintbrush tool in Photoshop.

Case in point: when I originally processed Road Less Travelled I assumed it would be converted to black and white, so I intentionally over saturated the colors. This was helpful, because it provided me with more information in making my monochromatic conversion.

I do like the way the black and white version, called the Choosing the Path, came out (check out the image midway down the story Where Does Inspiration Come From?)

But I also understand the art director’s thinking when he asked to see a more ethereal and foggy version of the color Road Less Travelled. The variation of Road Less Travelled that I prepared in response to this request is shown above.

Also posted in Photography, Photoshop Techniques

Shell Essays

It’s been a while since I’ve created really abstract images such as The Dictator’s Architect and my Tower of Babel and variations. Usually with these images I start with photographic elements and “play” using Photoshop to create entirely new visual universes. This kind of creation is largely the subject of our second volume in the Photoshop Darkroom series (the subtitle is “Creative Digital Transformations”).

Shell Essay 6 by Harold Davis

Shell Essay 6 © Harold Davis

Lately I’ve had a professional reason to be working with shells for a decor project. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to take one of my images of a Nautilus shell, photographed to emphasize transparency, put on my headsets—and play away until I finished these two digital collages.

Shell Essay 5 by Harold Davis

Shell Essay 5 © Harold Davis

I think it is best to view both these images larger. Here are links to the larger sizes: Shell Essay 5 and Shell Essay 6.

Also posted in Photoshop Techniques

Cable Car Power

The highlight of the San Francisco Cable Car Museum is the wheels that power the cable cars. These have a somewhat Victorian steam punk look, despite the fact that they are actually powered by General Electric diesel engines. The constantly turning wheels pass through underground tunnels to power San Francisco’s famous cable cars.

Cable Car Power by Harold Davis

Cable Car Power © Harold Davis

I think the cable car wheels look good in black and white; however, in many ways this Victorian steam punk industrial environment is also a great subject for HDR.

To create the HDR image shown, I used a wide-angle lens (12mm) with my camera mounted on a tripod. I shot seven exposures, each exposure at f/9 and ISO 200. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/13 of a second to ten seconds.

I combined these manually bracketed images in post-production to create a single HDR image using tools provided by Nik Software, as well as hand-HDR layering Photoshop. The biggest single challenge was to retouch out a man in a red shirt, who appeared as a “ghost”—he was partially rendered—in two of the frames.

Also posted in HDR, Photography, San Francisco Area

Crashing Waves

Many things crash. Property that is overvalued. Waves on a storm-tossed sea. Computers that have outlasted their normal lifespan.


Storm-Tossed Sea by Harold Davis

Storm-Tossed Sea © Harold Davis


Thus it was that my old Windows computer died in the middle of writing an email to a friend. I had been nursing it along on its last legs for longer than I care to say.

From this death there was no recovery. Suffice it to say I am writing this on a new computer, having put in many hours getting my systems up and running again. How unproductive! I would rather have spent my time doing something creative.

This fiasco made my weekend stormy, but it could have been worse—all my image editing and photography-related work takes place on another (and, dare I say it, better designed) system running OS-X.

I was able to take out some of my computer-driven frustrations by doodling the Turneresque seascape you see above (click to view a larger version) which shows another kind of crashing—that of waves on a stormy sea.

To create this image I made abundant use of the lovely Florabella textures library.

Also posted in Hardware

Our new Epson 9900 printer arrives

When our new Epson 9900 printer arrived we had to shut the street for the delivery truck. The printer weighes 275 pounds, and it took three strong movers to get it from the curb into our dining room.

Epson 9900 being delivered

Or probably I should say “the room formerly known as dining”—because it is now home to the Epson 9900 printer.

We’ve been printing on an Epson 4800 for about five years. The Epson 4800 seemed big enough when we first got it, but the maximum size print we could make using it was 17X22 inches.

With the Epson 9900 we can print on 44″ rolls of paper. This means that it will be easy for us to make 24X36″ prints, or even 40X60″ prints. For some images that are wider than they are long we’ll now be able to print in mural sizes: for example my Floral Tapestry Panoramas could go up to ten feet wide!

I’ve been getting requests for larger prints lately, so it is great that we will be able to make them.

The Ultrachome HDR inks for the Epson 9900 are new and improved, with a greater dynamic range than the older inks. In addition, two colors have been added—green and orange—so the Epson 9900 is a ten color printer in an arrangement that reminds me of the extensive gamut of  Hexachrome offset printing, which features added orange and green inks.

Anyhow, the Epson 9900 behemoth has taken over our dining room, as you can see in this shot (click on the image to view it larger):

Epson 9900 printer in our dining room © Harold Davis

Epson 9900 printer in our dining room © Harold Davis

Before we can run the first print we’ll need to drill some holes, get a network drop in place, and bring grounded current to the printer. After that, the nozzles need to be charged, which takes most of the ink shipped with the printer.

My guess is that we’ll be pulling the first prints towards the end of the coming week. It’s very exciting, and I can’t wait!

Spruce Street House

The parents of one of Katie Rose’s buddies at pre-school are architects who  just bought a classical Berkeley shingle house from the early 1900s. In recent years this grand house has suffered from neglect, and been used for single room occupancy. So it’s a good thing that the new owners are architects who know what they are doing and can reverse the damage of the years.

Spruce Street House by Harold Davis

Spruce Street House © Harold Davis

When the owners gave me to permission to shoot inside the house before renovation began I was very excited because I love the sense of possibility in empty architectural spaces. Once a building has been restored—and worse yet, furnished—this sense of potentiality is gone forever. It is lost in the specifics of a single sensibility of decorating aesthetic (if one is lucky) or just cluttered (if one is not).

This shot down the stairwell had the usual difficulties with getting the camera in position—although this aspect wasn’t quite as treacherous as the stairwell in the Edificio Cuervo Rubio in downtown Havana, Cuba where I had to perch on top of a toilet tank (the full story is in The Photoshop Darkroom 2: Creative Digital Transformations).

My life was made a little more difficult by a contracting gentleman (I think he was quoting a price for shingle repair) who kept putting his notebook down on one of the newel posts as I was shooting!

This image is a blend of seven exposures. I used my 10.5mm fisheye. Each exposure was at f/22 and ISO 100. I used a tripod throughout, and shutter speeds with durations from 1/60 of a second to 2 minutes. I blended the exposures to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image by hand, and also using Nik HDR Efex Pro. When I converted to monochromatic my hope was to create an effect that was almost Escher-like in feeling, although without the surrealism of many of Escher’s famous etchings.

Also posted in HDR, Monochrome