Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Australia in High Dynamic Range

I've been really impressed with the work +Trey Ratcliff has been sharing on Google+, which led to me wondering if HDR might be a way to add some "punch" to my landscape photography. My recent holiday back to Oz offered the perfect excuse to experiment. I've put my best HDR photos so far into this Google+ album.

I've been working on my photography skills for a while now, but there are certain scenes that I've  found particularly challenging. Dramatic sunsets, photos taken in bright sunlight (or towards the sun), or photos taken on dark, gray days have been a struggle to capture adequately on camera.

HDR seemed like a technique that might help me capture on film what I could see with my eyes, and what better place to practice than on a Western Australian beach at sunset?

We also spent some time in Ballarat, over in Victoria. In recent years rural Australia has been known for a crippling drought followed by devastating floods, but when we visited it was a velvet field punctuated by saphires, with the dams and lakes all filled to capacity.

We were staying within the shadow of Mount Buninyong, which provided the perfect opportunity to experiment with some midday shots taken from a high vantage point.

Bird's eye views are always stunning in person, but I've had difficulty turning that view into  interesting photos -- particularly as I seldom make it to these places at dusk or dawn when the natural light would be more favorable.  My initial results were definitely encouraging.

To help experiment, my trusty Canon EOD 500D has an exposure bracketing option that lets me take three consecutive pictures using different exposures. Photoshop comes with an automation plugin that merges multiple exposures to produce HDR images.

I learned a few things from my experience so far. The first - somewhat obviously - is to look for scenes with an abundance of color depth. Rich greens offset by deep blues and grays look fantastic.

Somewhat less obvious is the effect that a hint of rich color can add to an otherwise monochromatic scene. HDR will add layers of depth to grey clouds and dark seas, so a small splash of red or green can produce dramatic results.

I also learned that taking portrait photos in HDR is much more difficult. Close-ups can be incredibly unflattering as skin tones are exaggerated and people start to creep into the uncanny valley.

It's also tricky to photograph scenes with movement. When you merge the images, slight differences are often shown up as artifacts or ghosting. A steady hand is a must (my best results used a tripod), and shooting toward the sun will minimize your exposure times. Looking at the images blown up on my 24" monitor, it's also clear that there are more annoying pixel artifacts, halos, and ghosting that I need to work on to improve the final effect.

Overall, I need to practice to get better results, but I the progress so far is promising and HDR is definitely a tool I'll be adding to my amateur photography tool-belt.

[I've disabled comments here in favour of using Google+. Feel free to join the conversation over there.]

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Memories in the White Space

A distinct melancholy accompanies me as I sort through the images and artifacts of my youth.

My wife and I left Australia almost 7 years ago. We lived in London and now the Bay Area, but for me home is still Perth. We're back this month—the first time in three and a half years—and I'm using the opportunity to free my parents of some of the detritus I left with them before taking off in 2005.

Our visit has been timed to coincide with the wedding of one of my very best friends. I've been friends with the groom and most of his side of the wedding since our first year at Duncraig Senior High. We were all members of the Academic Extension program (a particularly nefarious way to target those of us most likely to be on the fringes of high school social life and stigmatize us further by segregating us into separate classes.)

When we all get together for some quiet drinks the night before the wedding it's only a matter of minutes before my accent has slowed and thickened, and we're poking fun and chatting as though I'd never left. The same pattern repeats as we catch up with close friends I'm lucky to see every few years. We share a hug and a beer and talk about their new kids, houses, fiances, spouses, and business ventures with an easy comfort that makes it seem like only a or two week has passed since we last hung out.

Back at my parent's house, amongst the polyhedral dice, Star Trek VHS tapes, and school assignments are 10 A3 scrapbooks filled with photographs of me, my friends, and family from birth until I moved out at 21.

I grew up in the age before digital cameras and smartphones captured every moment (magic or otherwise) ready for posting to Facebook. As teenage boys, my friends and I were particularly adept at avoiding my mum's instamatic. As a result, flipping through the stacks of photo albums is a surreal experience. Christmases, birthdays, high school balls, and graduation ceremonies are all captured in full colour—but what strikes me most is the memories that live in the white space between the photos.

A thumb-obscured image doesn't capture the experience of all-night LAN parties spent playing Doom 2. A single photo of us playing pickup basketball (without the hoop in frame) is a faint reminder of the hours spent on court and the four broken arms collected between me and the aforementioned groom during games; plaster-cast testimony to our passion for the game.

A shot of me posing, awkward and gangly, in my inter-school sports uniform captures nothing about the day, but brings back the crowd of apathetic high-schoolers gathering around the high-jump mats, and the rush (and not a small amount of surprise) I felt as they genuinely cheered me on to jump my own height and break the school record.

There aren't any photos to commemorate the long nights spent playing AD&D, or the Friday nights we all spent at WesTrek watching boot-leg videos of each new episode of TNG, but the Player's Handbooks and mountains of Star Trek videos, books, and technical manuals bring back the memories all the same.

20 years. That's how long I've known some of my closest friends. Two thirds of my life. I'm a proper geek, so don't find it easy to build these effortless friendships, so the comfort of sliding back into them is tempered by the knowledge that it'll be years until I can next hang out with some of my best friends.

Email, Facebook status updates, and Google+ will help us stay in touch until the next time we voyage the 8,000 miles back home. When that happens there'll be more kids to meet, new houses to tour, and new businesses to hear about. We'll hug, share a few beers, and it'll be like we never left.

[I've disabled comments here in favour of using Google+. Feel free to join the conversation over there.]