Black River Scenic Byway

The Upper Peninsula. The U.P. for short. It’s attached to Wisconsin, but it’s part of Michigan. That’s ok. Who could Wisconsans make fun of if not for Yoopers? Lol.

The Black River Scenic Byway starts about 2 hours north of where I live and is an easy drive. Even if you’re coming from further away it’s worth the trip. You can see about 1/2 dozen falls in just a few miles of road and with very little hiking. Be prepared for a lot of stairs though! Boy were my calves sore after all that up and down. It was worth the pain and I only ended up bailing on one set of falls – Rainbow at the end. There’s just no good way to shoot them from the platform. Shame because they are impressive as hell. Maybe there’s a way to get to the other side. I see from the map that there is a road on the other side of the river, but I’m not sure there’s a trail system. I will have to investigate for another trip.

They plunged from sight

Although it was a perfect day for this kind of photography (overcast, bright, not too windy) I had a couple of things go wrong on me. First was my tripod – it has a removable center column which I put back on and realized the gasket on the inside of the tripod that keeps the column tight was incorrectly placed. This made the post itself too loose to be stable and sometimes it would sink a little under the weight of the camera (as little as that is). Ugh. Be sure you check your gear at home and know how it is supposed to operate and how to fix it if it isn’t working right. After I got home I tackled the problem and solved it. It didn’t take long, just needed a bit of concentration on the task.

And of course the height of the railings around viewing platforms was just at the height of the camera on the tripod without the center column. Precisely why I wanted to use the dumb thing to begin with. So I couldn’t use it much on the platforms and ended up hand-holding more than I usually do with this kind of thing. I did manage to use the same railings to brace myself so I had some leeway in exposure settings.

Gorge falls

Another thing against me was the limited view of the falls for many of them on this river. It’s part of the Ottawa National Forest and so has sturdy, wooden viewing areas, walkways and stairs that let you see the falls at least, but make it difficult to be creative with photography. You can basically take one view of each. But hey, at least we get to see them. Without the platforms it would be impossible or just too dangerous because the banks are so steep.

Black River Gorge

Funny though. I think forcing me to handhold a lot of shots made me appreciate the change in how the images came out. Too many times I think we get stuck in photographic ruts. As I mentioned in my previous post about Ripley Creek, the soft, silky water thing can get overplayed. Water presents so many looks and moods that we shouldn’t forget that the camera can capture those just as well. I also love the contrast between the tannic water and the snow.

Potawatomi Falls

In addition to making sure my tripod is in working order, I learned another lesson on this trip. Don’t buy crappy gear. If you need a piece of kit, buy the best you can afford. It’s better than having to buy it twice even if you have to go without while you save up. Also, don’t do what I did and think that your photography isn’t worth the best gear. I don’t mean to say that you should buy whatever you want even if you can’t afford it, but money aside, don’t discount your work so easily. I ran my work down over different items, saying to myself that I wasn’t a professional or making money with my photographs so why did I need something so grand. I ended up having to buy things over again which was more a waste than if I’d just bought the good stuff I longed for to begin with. Plus I’d have had a better time with my photography instead of being frustrated and ruining shots.

This time I’m talking about my neutral density filter. It was too bright to do long exposures without it and unfortunately instead of buying a good set, I bought a variable type. This works by sandwiching two pieces of glass together and rotating them to block the light coming into the camera. Sounds good, but damn it can really screw with the shot as illustrated by these two images –

Example 1

A little twist and look at the corners now.

Example 2

I noticed it in the field and had to settle for shorter shutter speeds than I wanted because of it. After this frustrating experience, I broke down and got myself a good one. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson with the polarizer after finally ditching the cheap one for something better. Both of mine are the same lovely German brand and I wish I’d not wasted money on cheaper ones.

Sandstone Falls

Yes, I did manage to fix the problems in Lightroom, but I’d rather have avoided them altogether. It might be a cliche, but you get what you pay for is true. I should write a post about my mistakes with this and photography. It would be long.

Emotional sabbat

As I mentioned above, I found a bit of freedom by coming off the tripod and playing with compositions and shutter speed. Lucky it was bright enough to handhold a lot of shots without resorting to high ISO settings and I had some fun on the frozen rocks below the falls. Also good that I remembered to bring my boot spikes because without them it would have been too slippery and dangerous to get out into the river where I have the most fun. I just love a raging river, don’t you?

Fleeting recollection

Because I’d driven a longish way to visit this area, I made the most of my time and explored side trails whenever possible. One led me upriver from Sandstone Falls, the only falls I could get to in an intimate way on this trip. I just LOVE exploring rivers. Both on land and in the kayak. The lure of what’s around the next bend is what does it. The changing landscape, the possibility of something new and astonishing. It’s wonderful and boy, did I get an eyeful of that on the Black River. There are lots of stairs here for a reason – the banks are steep. Check this out –

Loud and frenetic

Wow is that ever cool. Look at the log in the lower left – it shows the angle of the bank. Wicked steep. And the trail just here is about a foot wide. I just love nature in all its power and glory. A little further up are some rapids at a sharp bend. Not exactly photogenic on this trip because I couldn’t get down onto some rocks that would make a great vantage point, but that can be for my next trip.


A serious camera bag that’s seriously stylish

After a while every photographer accumulates a lot of bags. Most of mine are task specific, like my sling bag is for those days out in nature when I need more photo equipment with me than other stuff like lunch or a place to store clothing layers; when I need to bring that stuff, I choose my old backpack. Since about ’02 or ’03 that bag has been my carry-on when I travel with my camera with me. It’s ok and holds pretty much everything I need, but I feel kind of like a country bumpkin sometimes. Especially when I’m not going to need a backpack for the trip itself (not hiking). In those cases I wanted a protective bag that looks like it belongs to a grown up woman. Harder to do than you’d think. Oh sure there are plenty of manly or hipster-doofus messenger bags, but that’s not what I wanted. And yeah, there are purses/totes galore, but who wants to wrap her $1500 lens in a t-shirt?

Aide de Camp to the rescue! (No, I’m not a shill, I just thought an article about a nice bag that is actually useful would be helpful for other women in my situation.)

So before I get into the bag itself check out what I got into it with ease!
FullSizeRender (2)

Yes, that is a full-sized tripod (a Really Right Stuff TQC-14)! Sure, I had to detach the head (a RRS BH-30 LR), but better than either carrying it alone or putting it in a checked bag. I didn’t mind when I had an el-cheapo travel tripod, but not my precious. That stays with me whenever possible. Oh and I just realized my Oakley case for my Half Jackets and their 2 extra lenses isn’t in that shot. It’s a relatively big hard shell sort of egg-shaped (7 inches by 4 or so). That fit, too.

They’re bad cell phone pics, but here’s how the bag came to me in the first place –

There’s a bonus kitty in that one, I think it’s Matilda.


Isn’t that lovely? It comes so beautifully packaged and presented and shipped relatively fast from Singapore. I’ve bought some reasonably high-end bags in my life and this was on par with those. It even included a little note thanking me for my purchase.

I decided on the Nadine after about a day of research. Most other bags were either hideously ugly, got poor reviews or were too small and/or flimsy. It reminded me of buying motorcycle gear in the mid 1990s; most of it was pitiably useless, offering no protection or technical edge, but instead had fringe or rose appliques. I had to by men’s gear which usually didn’t fit correctly. Ridiculous. Why don’t companies take the needs of women as seriously as they do the men? Sure, there may be fewer of us in certain sports or activities, but it doesn’t mean we don’t do those things with any less dedication and it certainly doesn’t mean it should be a more risky activity as a result. Anyway, I’ll stop ranting.

At first I thought it might be a little too big, but once I filled it (with the tripod!) I realized it’s pretty perfect. When I arrived at the hotel and removed the toiletries and a few other things, this became the bag that went in the car with our daily needs tucked right inside. It was great. It’s made of soft, canvas and the straps are of the same material as car seat belts (I do wish they were a little wider or padded, but you can’t have everything).

For an airline carry-on it works quite well and it fit under the seat of a small regional jet. There’s a large padded pocket for a 15″ laptop, but I used it for my iPad. I didn’t take up all of the camera section with gear, but used some of it to stack small items like the watch and jewelry box I travel with. My rectangular black cases, one for camera and one for charging accessories, fit on either end of the padded photo drop in. There’s a flap for securing it to a rolling suitcase which makes schlepping it easier when it’s fully loaded. My only complaint is that the straps are a bit short for me to comfortably sling over my shoulder without breaking my wrist or using two hands. I’m 5′ 9″ and don’t have particularly long arms, but it still could use a couple of inches to make that ideal. If you’re short it shouldn’t be an issue.

So I hope that was useful. If you need a bag for your camera gear, but that holds other things and looks good doing it, put this one on your short list.

For more information about this bag, visit The Nadine Collection. I don’t have direct experience with any of the other bags, but on the strength of this one, I recommend Aide de Camp if you’re looking for a stylish bag that offers real protection and flexibility.

Techniques for using a diffuser with macro photography

In my last post, I mentioned that I bought a collapsible diffuser, so I thought I would write to explain how I use it, what the results have been and why I can’t believe I haven’t bought one before.

Part of my not buying one is sheer forgetfulness, but another is that I don’t want to complicate my photography with a lot of gear. Before my old ring flash died I used it sparingly because natural light seems much more complementary to my work than artificial and so you’d think a light reflector/diffuser would be more appealing, but somehow I just made do with my hat or leaves or simply using my body to make my own shade. Adequate, but not flexible and certainly not repeatable with any certainty, I mean, who can find the perfect leafy branch every time you need one?

So here is the little beast –

I included a credit card so you can get an idea of size. It’s very slightly translucent, but completely opaque, made of nylon and has a hard plastic ring sewn into the black piping. If you grasp the edges and twist it will fold down to fit in its case which has a loop for attaching to a carabiner or other handy clip. At first I had a time remembering I had one, but once I started using it, it stayed more out of the bag than in. I do wish I could use it with an articulated arm/clip system I built a couple of years ago, but alas it’s too insubstantial which works for being foldable, but doesn’t leave a large/firm enough edge to grip.

Mostly I use it to diffuse light; that is to create shade or soften shadows. Here are a few examples of how I’ve used it to improve my images.

These are the same chanterelle waxcaps from a previous post. I found them in the woods with the sun almost directly overhead. Oh so harsh and contrasty. They were next to a large pile of boulders, fallen branches and other pointy and squishy stuff I didn’t really want to have to climb around in to make shade with my body (my hat wasn’t wide enough).

Kristen_SmithAugust 27, 2015P1120631

So rather than give up and leave these alone, I remembered the diffuser and here’s what I got instead –

One of the things I love is that the shadows aren’t entirely gone, but they’re controlled and softened. Now, before you think I’ve used some Lightroom sleight-of-hand, the processing values are exactly the same. It’s only the light and the resulting exposure that is different. Notice the color saturation, too. The orange/red/yellow is much, much too hot in the first picture. Just as you can clip whites and blacks, you can clip colors and just like when you clip highs and lows, the information is unrecoverable. The sensor is overloaded and the detail is lost. So is the smaller mushroom.

This isn’t the only image I took with the diffuser. Using the camera’s LCD screen I could watch the effect of the shade as I held it at different angles and distances from the subject. The differences were subtle, but noticeable and I chose what I liked best in the end. Every situation is different and I’m sure I’ll be playing with it more and more. Without a diffuser I would have walked away from that little scene and lost a photo that I really like.

It isn’t direct light on a subject that is always the main problem. Sometimes it’s glare on another element in the shot that makes for a distracting highlight. Take this one as an example. It’s in my backyard where honey mushrooms grow in huge masses at the base of the trees (the deer love them, btw, and snack on them often). We don’t have a lot of red maples around, so when I spied this leaf I knew I’d use it to make the mushrooms stand out. The problem was the afternoon sun. Even with a polarizer there’s glare on the leaf that I find distracting –

Kristen_SmithSeptember 25, 2015P1130374

The first places your eyes naturally go to in a photograph are the light areas which is why it’s so important to mange those backgrounds and watch for things that can pull the viewers’ eyes away from your main subject. Out came the handy diffuser and voila –

Other than the change in camera position, everything is the same. The glare was still there and the diffuser blocked it really well. This time I angled the thing perpendicular to the ground to block the sun. The red pops as it should and so does the texture and slight yellow tinge of the mushrooms.

Distractions – they’re not helpful at all and sometimes waiting for the light to change just isn’t practical even in a tiny scene where just a couple of minutes of the earth’s rotation will help. Or waiting for cloud cover. What if there are no clouds? Take this next before picture. Sporophytes are some of my favorite things, but they already exist down where there’s a lot going on; shapes, textures, colors – all competing for your attention. So after careful composition to arrange those elements, light patterns can be hard to deal with like they are just behind the sporophyte stems. Irritating.

Kristen_SmithSeptember 09, 2015P1120833

So the diffuser to the rescue.

Again, other than the change in light, everything is the same. I just copied the processing I did with the second image onto the first so they would compare fairly. This time I angled the diffuser just behind the sporophytes and hotspot be gone!

Fixing this kind of thing is possible in Lightroom and other robust photo editing packages, but it’s much easier to do in the field. So consider getting a diffuser and using it for your macro and close up work. I find it very useful to provide consistent shade that can be manipulated to give you highlights and shadows that bring out the beauty of your subjects.

Me and my new GH3

As I said in my Elusive Wildflowers Part 9 post, I have a new camera. It’s a Lumix (Panasonic) GH3. Yeah, I know they’re hemorrhaging money these days, but the Lumix was the only one that would do what I want the way I want it. It’s my first mirrorless camera and also my first non-Olympus. Here are some shots of it from reviews and articles –

That’s exactly my kit. The lens & body I had to pay for, but the grip was a bonus and I also got (but haven’t received yet) a $125 rebate on the body. Pricey, yeah. But as I said it was the only one that would do what I need how I need it. A lot of folks who had its predecessor the GH2 are mad because it’s bigger. Considerably so, but since my E-30 was bigger still, I don’t mind. It fits my hand nicely and has all the controls I’m used to working with in very convenient places. It has function buttons that are customizable and that’s new for me and something I have yet to really work with, but as time goes on, I think that I will. It also has customizable modes for different styles of shooting and that I have played with. Check out the top and how nicely arranged it is. Granted, I’d like that forward control dial in front of the shutter since that’s what I’m used to, but I can adapt.

I’ve had a camera with a tilt and swivel screen for 3 years now and can’t live without it. I don’t know what the stubborn insistence is with pretty much all camera manufacturers to relegate that feature to their most entry-level cameras, but it’s frustrating. Since I’d be upgrading, I wanted in addition to improved image quality, a weather-proof body and lens, but without the screen it would be unusable. Panasonic gave me that and tons more. The OLED viewfinder is taking the most getting used to, but since I work mostly from the live view screen, it’s not that much of a problem.

So that’s my new rig. Enough pictures of it. Time for some shots from it. Of course I put the Olympus 90mm macro on it right away. It’s a dream. Not only is the IQ improved, but because the OLED screen(s) brighten automatically I can focus with the lens stopped down, something I couldn’t do with the E-30. It makes for a smoother flow in the field. Check it out!

I didn’t touch the color sliders on either of those, btw. The richness is amazing just by setting white and black points. I don’t have to do much to the contrast either, but I still do. I think it’s the lens itself – the age and the type of coatings they used. Even the color purple, which I’ve talked about before, is accurate. For something different, I decided to use the on-board flash to kick up the dazzle in the raindrops a bit and it worked a treat. All I did was turn it on and leave the camera in Aperture-priority. It did amazingly well.

To test the camera a bit and see about its limits and strengths, I’m doing things differently than I did with the E-30. I still shoot in RAW, but I am putting it on auto white balance a lot and it’s pretty accurate. Not always, but mostly. I am also experimenting with the improved low-light performance and so I tried hand-holding this shot at 800 ISO. No WAY this would look this good with my old camera.

Sure, I reduced the noise in Lightroom a bit, but not more than I would have for 200 ISO in the Olympus. And the colors are accurate and I didn’t tweak them at all. If anything, I sometimes have to turn the vibrance down a bit so they don’t look so saturated. The trillium shot is with the Lumix 12-35mm f2.8 lens with the IS turned on. Yeah, the one black mark against the GH3 is the lack of in-body image stabilization which means I don’t get it when I use my OM 90mm or any of my other legacy glass. That was a nice thing to have on the E-30 and I do miss it. I can live without it though since most of the time I’ve got the macro on a support of some kind, but my perfect camera would have IBIS. The 12-35mm is a bit shorter in reach than my recent standard lens, and I don’t think it focuses quite as close, but it is a constant f2.8 aperture and so far I like working with it.

I haven’t done a lot of landscape work with this rig yet, but I did get out to do a sunset on Saturday and here’s one shot I have processed so far.

It’s from the top of the diminutive Mt. Foss in Eaton, NH. I used one of my Cokin ND grads (the holder is for my old lens, so I handheld the filter for these) to control the light better and I did tweak the red, orange, purple and magenta channels a bit in LR, but none over 25 on the slider scale. I also hit the luminance on the yellow and green channels to hightlight the strip of trees there. Just setting my white and black points and leaving the contrast low, and the thing still pops. I’m pretty amazed. In the field this camera is really nice to work with and it’s WAY quieter than my Olympus, which even comparing with other cameras with mirrors, was louder than anyone else’s I’d heard. It always embarrassed me and now I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I could even turn on the electronic shutter and have the GH3 run totally silent. Very cool.

So apart from a couple of fiddly bits (remote cable, ND filter, batteries) I’ve got a pretty good package. Oh and before I forget, the thing also has an intervalometer built-in and HD, broadcast-quality video. Two VERY new things for me, but both of which I’ll be playing with soon.

Tools of the Task

Lots of people have done a ‘what’s in my camera bag’ type post and have dragged every last bit of kit out of each and every nook and cranny of their bags.  Kind of interesting, but out of all that stuff I’d like to know what a person really uses to create her images.  I have all the emergency and mundane stuff as any photographer does, but I don’t use those things all the time.  Like extra memory cards and lens cloths.  You need them, but they’re not part of your process per se.  So here’s a shot of what I actually use most to do what I do.

Stuff I actually use

Starting at the top left with the tripod.  It’s a travel model because I don’t want to lug my gigantic Bogen all over the woods on a regular basis.  I bring that one if I need its weight or reach, but for woodland landscapes, close ups and some waterfall shots, this little Slik works just fine.  I used to not bother much with tripods, but have come to realize it’s my sharpest lens.

Next is My Precious.  Every time I leave the 90mm home, I end up wanting it.  Like the other day I went out with the 135mm instead, just to be different, and of course I came across something I’d like to have shot very close up and my regular lens wasn’t up to task.  I was SOL.  Sure, the 90 is heavy, but it’s worth lugging.  I loves it.

Duh, yeah, I use a camera.  I wasn’t going to put it in the shot, but decided to because of the LCD screen. I use it all the time.  It tilts, it swivels, it works like a waist-level finder and is almost the only way to shoot with my old lenses, especially for close-up work.  Any future camera must have this feature.  Seriously.  And the lens on there is what I shoot with most of the time – the ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4.  It has just the range I need for the type of photography I do.  It goes very wide to a normal angle of view and focuses very close.  It’s wicked sharp, quick focusing and fairly bright.  I’m pretty spoiled by it.

Remote shutter release.  I don’t use it all the time, but when I have to time the shutter precisely, I do.  If there’s no wind or I’m not worried about it interfering with the shot, I often use the 2 second shutter delay feature and that works pretty well.  Of course if I forget to take it off and am handholding it’s irritating, but on a steady surface I like it.  When it’s windy though, those 2 seconds can change everything and that’s when using the shutter release is the best solution.

Neck knife.  Sometimes you have to cut stuff to clean up a scene.  A branch, a frond, whatever.  I usually have this little blade handy for such tasks.  And, let’s face it, a woman alone is not the safest thing in the world and if anyone gets up in my face they’re in for a surprise.  Not that my spidey-sense has ever tingled, but having some protection is always a good idea.

Filters.  Basically just two – a polarizer and a neutral density.  I have a set of graduated NDs, but I don’t use them often.  Just for sunsets and rises mostly.  The polarizer is great for bringing up the color in leaves, getting rid of glare on water and smartening up reflections when those are the star of the show.  The ND is how you get those long exposures during the day.  It’s like sunglasses for your camera.  When doing waterfalls or flowing water shots, I use both.

Beanbag. My camera lives on the ground and I wasn’t going to shell out a lot of money to give it something to rest on.  Why do that when you can go to the grocery store, spend a buck on some barley, lentils or rice and put them into a ziplock?  Instant beanbag.  Any shot of mine you see that’s wicked low to the ground was taken with this.

Bug spray.  Either this or the stuff like it in a tube it.  It’s from 3M and has a wagonload of DEET which is the only thing worth a damn in bug spray.  The higher the percentage, the better.  The nice thing about the spray is that it works on clothing and doesn’t smell too bad.  I put it on and it’s like an anti-bug force field.  Of course I don’t need it in the winter, but April through October, it’s a MUST in New England.

Anyway, that’s what I use for most of my work and what I usually have with me when I’m out.  Anyone have a similar kit?  What stuff could you not live without?

Photography Field Tips #1

One of the earliest lessons I learned in photography was to cultivate good field habits.  That is to establish habits and routines that not only help you stay organized, but keep you from going crazy if you have a lot of gear.  Accessories are the kiss of death sometimes and unless you have a way to keep track of them, you’ll lose stuff or not be able to find something when you need it.  One of my oldest habits is to always put my lens cap in my left pocket.  Usually it’s my pants pocket, but it can be jacket or vest pocket, too.  Don’t get me started on cap keepers, either.  Never had one, never will.  When I was in camera retail I sold them by the boatload, but would never be caught dead with one.  Noob city.  Nope, the pocket rule has always worked.  Only lost one lens cap in 25 years.  I think that’s pretty good.  Whenever I don’t follow the rule, I screw myself up royally.

The other day is a perfect example.  I was out in the woods as usual, looking for signs of spring.  I didn’t find any, but I shot a little anyway.  I remembered distinctly that I didn’t want to put my lenscap in my left pants pocket where I always put it because I was going to do a lot of ground shooting and it’s uncomfortable to have a 72mm cap in there.  I also couldn’t get to my jacket pockets because of my backpack straps.  But it belongs in one of them that’s for sure. That’s all I remembered when an hour later I reached for my lenscap because it started to snow hard.  It wasn’t there.

Frantic pocket patting ensued.  I must have looked demented.  Or like I had OCD.  That great George Carlin routine about losing things went through my head.  I even checked the upper parts of my pockets because yes, indeed, it might have fallen upward!  I went through the obvious places in my backpack.  I changed the battery so maybe it ended up in the main compartment where the old batteries go…nope, not there.  Am I sure it’s not in my pockets?  More pocket patting.  Nope, not back yet.  I knew I shouldn’t have put it in my left front pocket…I knew I’d be crouched down a lot and it must have squirted out while I was shooting.  A quick review of my shots gave me the locations where I’d have to stop and search.  Back down the trail I went.  Eyes down, scanning for a black disk and hoping it fell on some snow and not the leaves which could hide a Sherman Tank.

Imagine looking for the same stupid leaf you liked on the side of the path only coming from the other direction.  OMFG it was torture…was that the little plant I stopped to look at?  Oh hey, here’s where I found that old jar.  It must be here.  After much snow scraping and leaf kicking I didn’t find it.  Ok…it must be down where I shot that club moss.  Yeah, I spent a lot of time there, so it must be there.  How much further was that?  Oh there it is.  More snow kicking and leaf sweeping.  No cap.  OMG.  Is it where I shot that weird tree?  Or was it when I went to shoot the birch bark?  Tramp down the trail some more, always scanning the ground.  What if someone stomped on it?  What if someone kicked it?  What if a dog thought it was a toy and chewed it all up?  I’ll never find it.

So…to make a long story short I got all the way back to the first thing I shot and still didn’t find my missing cap.  I decided to search my backpack again and then it hit me.  I put it in the side pocket.  But not the left pocket, the right one.  There it was.  Shining up at me, smiling with glee that it was once again found.  If I could have kicked myself, I would have.  What a dope.  I didn’t follow my rule and it screwed with me.

The Offending Pocket

You can imagine what I’ll be remembering to do on my next few trips out into the field.  Negative reinforcement, baby!

So what other rules do I have?  Not all that many, but one that I live by is to keep my fresh batteries in one spot.  Here –

Keep your good and bad batteries straight or you'll go nuts.

If I find batteries anywhere else in my pack, I know they’re used.   I don’t really have a designated place for them, just that they don’t go back into that little section.

Oh, so I probably should show you the whole rig, huh?  Well here it is with my travel tripod stuffed in the back –

My most used camera bag - a LowePro

It’s a LowePro Street & Field Rover Light.  Stupid name, great bag.  The top section is basically one big pocket and is great for non-photo stuff like snacks, shell jackets, hats, gloves and other stuff.  I’ve got a trash bag in there all the time as well as some peanut-butter crackers.  Oh and an extra memory card, filters, a space blanket and folded paper towels.  And I can’t forget my Swiss Army knife and flashlight.

The bottom section opens like a clamshell and has padded sections like any other camera bag.  I haven’t moved them around much.  My old E-300 (which I used to take these pictures) fit better than my E-30 does mostly because it doesn’t have a penta-prism and is flat on top.  It does the job though –

The E-30's home away from home

As I haven’t acquired a large telephoto zoom at this point, this bag still works.  I’ve had it since 2003 and it’s been everywhere.  I use it as my primary carry-on all the time when I’m flying.  I can cram toiletries and other stuff like my Bose headphones, a book and my iPod in the top and all my camera stuff below.  But the best thing about it is that it’s a real hiker’s pack with excellent padding and adjustment potential.  When hiking with a camera I usually have it hanging from a D-ring on the right shoulder strap.  Like this –

With a wrist strap, the camera hangs at hip-height and is manageable on the trail.

Most of the time I don’t even have to detach the camera and can leave it on the D-ring (or D-link as I stupidly labeled it).  It is an unusual arrangement, but it works for me.  The D-ring is also a handy hanger for gloves.  Sometimes I hang a water-bottle pouch from the waist belt.  Not only is it good for water, but for a long telephoto making it easy to do lens changes without taking the pack off.  The only downside is when you slide down a hill in deep snow.

So yeah, I’ve gone down a tangent that has nothing to do with rules for the field.  Digression is the house special today.  As rules go I think the lens cap location is key as is keeping your batteries straight.  Anyone else got any good field habits they want to share??  Feel free to chime in!

Digital Photo Storage Strategy

A while back something happened to my primary hard drive that nearly gave me a heart attack.  Suddenly, with no explanation I could find, my drive was no longer seen by the operating system.  OMFG!  Years worth of raw files, gone.  Panic-stricken I researched data recovery services and found prices ranging from $800 to $1800.  What’s a starving artist to do?

After a bunch of flailing and asking the right questions to the right people, my husband discovered that our old Windows XP machine could still see the drive.  We were able to then transfer the data to another external HDD and I exchanged my primary HDD under warranty.  What caused the problem is still unknown and I can only sacrifice the occasional goat to the Gods of Technology so my new drive doesn’t suffer the same fate.

So what’s the upshot here?  It forced me to rethink my archival and backup strategy.  Coming from the IT consulting world, I know the value of back up and keeping data in physically different locations.   Here’s my current strategy –

1st tier = Primary storage = 2TB external HDD

This is my working drive.  I transfer all raw files from the memory card to this drive and import them directly into my Lightroom catalog.  Occasionally I delete a really bad photo from a batch, but for the most part everything I shoot stays here.  With two terabytes, who needs to delete en mass?  Folder structure is Year > Month > Subject, with the months numbered so they’re in calendar order.

2nd tier = Backup storage = 500GB external HDD

This is the backup or archive drive.  Using flags or picks in Lightroom I determine which are the overall best shots of the session.  Those are renamed at the file name level and the raw files are transferred to the 500GB drive.  Folder structure remains the same.  I’ve permanently changed the drive path letter for this drive so that it won’t randomly assign one every time I connect.  My primary external HDD also has an assigned drive path letter.  I’m in the process of writing a preset in the publishing section of Lightroom to automatically format photos and corral them for publishing to the back up drive.  I plan to archive once a week when Lightroom prompts me to back up the catalog information.  Between back ups I’ll keep the drive in the fireproof safe where we keep other valuables.

3rd tier = Backup storage = flash drive

I’ve been using these drives to store large jpeg files of my very best images.  Usually the ones that get published to my online hosting accounts.  Basically one year of jpegs fits on an 8GB drive, but I’m using a 16GB for 2011.  These little drives are so inexpensive that I can pretty much have one per year and toss them into the fireproof safe when I move onto the next year.

At this point I’m not making use of online storage, but will in the future.  Hard drive life expectancy varies, but generally 5 years is what you should get out of one.  If you use a hard drive often (the kind with platters) it should be ok.  If you don’t the tiny gap between the read/write head and the platter may fuse, rip off and gouge the platter when powered up after a long time; losing your data and destroying your drive.  Over the years I’ve had a few catastrophic drive failures and so I can’t stress the need for back up and data duplication.  Online storage should definitely be a part of any back up strategy.  Due-diligence is key to choosing a provider with the proper safeguards and reputation for reliability.

You may notice I’m not using DVD or CD storage.  I have a burner in my laptop, but in my experience burning DVDs and CDs is a giant PITA.  I’ve never been good at it and end up making a lot of ‘coasters’ out of discs gone bad.  The quality from manufacturer to manufacturer varies and so it can be risky.

In researching this article I looked at a number of sources that talk about the longevity of optical media.  There are specific storage guidelines for DVDs and CDs that you need to pay attention to or else when you load one up in a few years, it might not play.  Dust and dirt are obvious – keep your discs protected and clean. Excessive heat and humidity are also bad and conclusions vary, but it’s safe to say that storing CDs and DVDs above 70 dF and over 50% relative humidity will wreck them.  As will keeping them in the light.  So do what The Traveling Wilburys advise and keep it in a cool, dry place.

I also learned that the automatic error correction coding built into reader software will often mask errors to the point of catastrophic failure; that is you won’t know the disc is corrupted until it’s too late.  That can’t be good for anyone.  Another thing I learned is that disc degeneration depends on the format – DVD/CD ROM v. DVD/CD-R v. DVD/CD-RW.  Basically it comes down to the base layer that holds the 1s and 0s.  To make a disc writable and especially re-writable, the medium must be more malleable and thus more fragile and disposed to degradation.  Here’s the low-down –

  • Recorded CD-R: 50-200 years
  • Recorded CD-RW: 20-100 years
  • Recorded DVD-R: 30-100 years
  • Recorded DVD-RW: up to 30 years

I didn’t include Blu-ray discs because they’re so new there isn’t much reliable data about them yet.  Still, check it out…20 to 200 years depending.  Depending on what??  Ugh.  That’s a huge gap and to me, speaks to the unreliability of CDs and DVDs.  So I’m not using them for the moment.

I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here.  Data storage is a HUGE component of digital photography and this is just one more article about it.   There’s plenty more info to be found, but I think a concise, non-techy article would be helpful for photographers who might need a leg up.  This is not necessarily an ad for the brand names shown here, they’re just what I use.  At this point pretty much all name-brand hardware performs equally, just find something you can afford and go with it.  Avoid my near-coronary!

Optical Storage Technology Association –
The CD Information Center –
Council on Library and Information Rescources – (section 4 contains the core info)

Aliens Stole My Gear!

Well not really, but on a photography board someone asked if aliens stole your gear (all of it) and somehow digital photography was rendered out of existence or banned or whatever (no cell phone cameras either), would you shoot film or would you give up photography?  If you decided to shoot film, would you go back to your old gear (assuming you had any) or would you try something new.

My immediate answer was yes – I would shoot film. I did for 20 years and sometimes even now have the urge to go back to it, so I’m definitely a photographer at heart. So would I choose my old gear again? Probably. I think the ergos of other brands would do my head in.

My first “serious” camera was an OM1-n that I bought used together with an OM 135mm f2.8 lens. I already had an OM 24mm f2.8 that I bought new as well as a couple other lenses and an OM-G. Oh and a Sunpak flash –

My "serious photographer" rig

A couple decades later just about I bought an OM-3 and a 35mm f2 lens because I’ve always wanted them.  The winder I had back in the 80s, too, but I don’t know why.  Just to have it I suspect.  It made the camera a bit more convenient to hold sometimes, and balanced it with a long lens, but sort of defeated the purpose of the slim, compactness of the OM bodies.

Hard core

Yeah, I’d probably go back to my old gear.  But I could be tempted by some of its contemporaries.  Back when I was choosing which brand have a long-term relationship with, I had a fling with the FA.  I mean look at it.  Isn’t it purty?  It’s no Olympus, which to me are the most beautiful cameras from that era, but it is one serious looking piece of kit.

A technical marvel

And much like the OM-3 it was a very advanced camera in terms of flash control, metering and shutter technology.  It was also quirky like the OM-3 which eats batteries like crazy.  The FA had some shutter problems and there were some recalls, but overall it was a tempting thing.  I’d still kind of like to have one.  Just to have it.  I used to play with the one in the store I worked at just to hear the shutter fire.  I do the same thing with my OM-3 now.  Digital SLR shutters just don’t have the same sound.  Or a film lever which is a tactile pleasure that has no equivalent in digital.

And how about this sweet baby?

Oh how I wanted one.  But I found that Olympus made a world-class macro lens, too, and like 15 years later, I bought one –

OM 90mm f2 macro & T10 controller & ring flash

I’d also be tempted by medium format, but as I don’t have a good enough scanner for those sized negatives, I’d probably just stick with 35mm film.  Even now I’m tempted by the idea of processing my own B&W film again.  All you need is a black bag, some chemicals and a developing tank…all stuff I used to have, but that got lost along the way.  The need for instantaneous feedback could still be approached with doing the film myself and I could still use my old favorites the OM-3 and OM-1n.  Plus there’s that chemical smell.

Yes, photography was a little more involved back then.  A little more work.  But I think that had its advantages.  Shooting film was expensive and limiting.  If you only had a couple rolls of 24 or 36 frames on you, you had to be discriminating in what you shot.  Back then I took more care with each of my images, walking around and around getting the feel for the area or subject, then choosing a shooting position.  After that, meticulously framing, composing and deciding on exposure.  Now I find myself more carelessly shooting, taking 100 images in my front yard just because I can.  Even though I have tried to be a more methodical photographer, the digital medium just makes things so easy and disposable.  If you don’t like it, delete it.  Don’t like that angle or depth of field, just take another shot. With film there were no do-overs.  What you shot was what you shot and if you didn’t like it you’d have to burn another frame.

Film also has its downside; it’s confining.  Digital has freed me.  Freed me to experiment.  To take chances.  Lots of images means lots of ways to learn what works and what doesn’t.  I’m not tied to a single film speed per camera.  I’m not tied to a 36-frame roll.  I’m not tied to the time of day.  I don’t have to wait to see my images.  Memory cards are way more reliable than film which could jam or not thread right if you weren’t paying attention.  I don’t have to write down exposure settings for each image anymore to understand what I did right or wrong.  I instantly know what my images look like and how I can improve them.  I can take hundreds of photos and not spend another dime to see them (aside from my initial investments of computer, software and  hard drive).

I guess it’s up to  me to find the balance between the discipline of film and the freedom of digital.

So what would you do if aliens stole your gear and outlawed digital photography?  Jump into the film pool or take up basket weaving instead?

To Bridge the Gap

One of the by-products of decades of photography is an excess of gear.  I’ve got stuff that I just HAD TO HAVE that I didn’t end up using much.  Yeah, photography isn’t the only hobby where this occurs, but it is one of the major ones.  Gear fetishists know what I’m talking about.  A spate of interest in a kind of shot makes you go out and buy all kinds of weird stuff.  Back in film days I bought a crap load of filters.  Didn’t use 3/4 of them, but I had them.  Ugh.

Then I decided to get into macro photography, but didn’t really research my needs very well and ended up with a ring flash when I really should have gotten a dual macro flash (one flash on either side of the lens, independently controlled and articulated).

Olympus T10 Ring flash and 90mm f2 macro lens

Needless to say, it didn’t get much use because while it provides great light, it doesn’t provide great definition in the form of shadows.  If I’d done a bit more research I’d have realized that to bring up detail in macro shots, hightlights and shadows are key.  The way to do that is to light one side of the object more than another.  Some do this by using a single flash and daylight, or sometimes a reflector and daylight, but another way is to use two flash units powered and angled differently.  Some ring flashes have controls to individually manage the flash bulbs within them and actually turn them up and down independently, but this flash doesn’t allow that.  So what’s a poor photographer to do?

Adapt.  Sure, I’d love to buy a new Olympus macro flash rig designed for the E System, but as I just said, I’m a poor photographer.  I need to find a way to use my old gear with my new gear.  I’d heard that some vintage film flash units can damage new digital SLRs with their high voltage output, so I was a more than leery of trying it.  Luckily the folks at Bifos exist to make the Olympus user’s life a little easier.  There’s even a tutorial on how to properly adapt this old flash to the E series cameras.  Rejoice!  After following the relatively simple directions, I’m taking it into the yard to experiment.

Quince blossoms in the rain

This is probably the best photo I’ve taken recently with the manual gear shown above.  Since the flash, lens and camera don’t communicate I have to assess everything in my head and try for the best settings with regard to shutter speed, aperture, flash output and focus.  I don’t actually mount the ring flash on the lens (although I could), instead I hold it to one side of the subject and aim it manually.  Literally.  It’s in my hand.  It’s a flexible way to work, but not very precise.  Sometimes things come out too dark or too light.  But over time I’m getting a feel for how each variable works with the others.  It’s not perfect, but it’s workable.  Next is a diffuser.  The direct light is too harsh for my liking, but a little DIY time should produce something useful.

So what the hell am I nattering on about?  What’s the point?  Well I guess in this era of reuse/recycle it’s appropriate.  A lot of old gear still has life in it if we’re willing to adapt.  I wouldn’t trade my old OM 90mm macro lens for anything, even a new Olympus macro lens.  And yeah, I’d love to have a new flash, but I’d feel so stupid and guilty for not using the one I have that it would be a hard purchase.  Using my old one gives me satisfaction in a couple of ways; I’m overcoming the difficulty of the process and I’m getting my money’s worth.  Now maybe I can find a legacy twin flash rig that will mount on the power unit…

Oh My Head

Ok…this is not meant to be a gear blog, but I just found a piece of kit that I’m seriously flipped over.  I’ve been toying with the idea of picking up a new tripod & head for macro photography.  The two tripods I have aren’t up to the task.  Neither gets low enough to the ground and one just flat out isn’t heavy enough to support my new camera and old macro lens.

After looking around I’ve been focusing on Manfrotto (my other two pods are an ancient Bogen and a travel-tiny Slik) because of their nifty horizontal capable tripod and multiple head choices.  When I went back to their website the other day, I saw this –

Manfrotto Joystick tripod heads

OMG.  I wasn’t considering a ball head because I find them a bit awkward to manage with a large rig on them.  I was leaning towards Manfrotto’s junior geared head both for its compact design and precision (as macro is my primary target use for this new rig, it’s a great option).  But now this changes everything.

There’s even a little video on Manfrotto’s website showing how you can change the friction and therefore the speed of the ball head.  That squeeze and release mechanism looks slick indeed.  And you can change it from a right hander to a left hander which I might do since even though I’m not left handed I have a lot of dexterity with it.

So I’m going to keep my eyes out for when this puppy releases and see if I can find a store that carries it.  I want to mess with it before I pony up cash, but I’m really jazzed about this design.