Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Making Time For Some Wildlife Photography

Northern Pintails feeding in a fresh water impoundment
Earlier this month, I had the chance to do something I haven't had the time or opportunity to do for a while - wildlife photography. I spent some time at the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge on the East Central Florida coast photographing waterfowl and wading birds. It made for a memorable morning as my visit gave way to a lot of new images.

Flock after flock of Pintail flew in from the east, circled, and landed in the water within 100 yards of my location
My morning began well before dawn as I wanted to be on site before the sun rose. The drive to the Refuge took me about a half an hour and once I arrived I made  beeline for one of the freshwater impoundments so I could catch flocks of pintail and blue wing teal coming in from their roosts for their morning meal. I was not disappointed. As soon as the sun began to rise, I could hear the splashes of waterfowl landing in the water. All I had to do was wait for there to be enough light to start shooting.

As soon as I arrived, I made some gear decisions. Assuming that my subjects would be some distance away from me and wanting to get some tight images, I opted for my DX-sensored Nikon D500 camera body with its 1.5X crop factor. In conjunction with my 400mm f2.8 lens and a 1.4X teleconverter, I would be able to shoot with a focal length of 840mm at f4. I attached the teleconverter to the lens, the combo to the camera body, and the setup to a monopod. I was good to go. 

As the sun began to rise, I started to shoot. I took some shots of the flocks as they flew in as well as once they were on the water. As soon as I knew I could push the shutter speed to a fast enough setting that wings would be frozen instead of blurred, I tried my hand at trying to capture individual ducks as they swooped in and landed.

Not long after the pintail arrived, blue wing teal began to show up in greater numbers. Teal are much smaller than pintail and have a reputation for flying fast as they buzz an area. I was ready for them and they did not disappoint. After getting shots of them feeding, swimming, and landing, it was time to catch them in flight. It was challenging but I had some success.

With my main waterfowl targets in the can, so to speak, I shifted gears and began to search for wading birds. The Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge is home to several species of wading birds, including Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, the endangered Reddish Heron, Ibis, Egrets, and Roseate Spoonbills just to name a few. Going from pond to pond, I found a few of each. My first priority was a nice portrait of a Snowy Egret. I found one in a perfect location, back lit by the sun and standing in front of some brush that served as nice, dark backdrop.

Next up was trying to find a Reddish Heron. As if on cue, one was in a nearby pond and it was putting on quite a show as it began to feed.

Reddish Herons have a unique way of feeding. They spread their wings in order to create shade on the surface of the water so they can better see their prey. They then dart back and forth in what appears to be a frantic, schizophrenic manner and when they isolate there prey they pounce.

With just about everything on my wish list checked off, I was ready to head out. As I drove out, I passed a few more impoundments and stopped when I saw something of interest. A Great Blue Heron napping on a mangrove caught my eye, as did a Little Blue Heron feeding in a large group of wading birds that include just about every conceivable species.

My day was complete and one that was way more productive than I could have hoped. I plan to return on my next trip to the East Central Florida area and can only hope that I am as fortunate as I was on this particular day to have the cooperation of so many birds.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Love-Hate Relationship With Catwalks

The view of the Tucker Center's basketball court in Tallahassee, Florida from the catwalks above the arena in 2014
Normally, when people talk about being in the nosebleed section of a stadium or an arena it's usually a sarcastic reference to being relegated to crappy seats. When I tell people that I'm headed to the nosebleed section it's not with any sarcasm my voice, it's with a mixture of excitement and fear. You see, my version of being in the nosebleed section of an arena is a bit different and a lot higher than the cheap seats - it's the catwalks that ring arenas high above the facility.

The catwalks and all the steel girders that support the structure
While I'm climbing up and down ladders and ramps, negotiating obstacles, cables, and lights, I am scared beyond words. I don't like heights. Actually, I really, really hate heights. But when I sit at my computer after a game and look through the images that I get from the catwalks, I know it was well worth the effort and the anxiety.

The arena lights just in front of the steel grates that make up the floor of the catwalks
Shooting from  the catwalks is not for the faint of heart. Many photographers set up remote cameras up there and then trigger them from the floor because spending one minute more than is necessary while perched on a catwalk sends shivers down their spines. I refuse to trust a camera's autofocus capabilities, or worse yet pre-focus on a spot and set the camera to Manual Focus, as a way of generating images. I'd rather not hope that a given shot sequence is in focus only to later see if the images are sharp. I prefer to do it old school and actually shoot from above.

The opening tip taken from the side
There are some guidelines I follow when venturing up to the ultra cheap seats ... errr ... catwalks. As far as equipment, I only take one camera body strapped securely around my neck with a lens attached. Since basketball is the sport most frequently photographed from catwalks, I'll concentrate this blog post on shooting basketball from the heavens.

Rebound in the lane, taken from a side angle
For basketball, my lens of choice is usually a 300mm f2.8 that I hand hold. On occasion I will also take a wide angle lens or my 15mm fisheye for artsy stuff. If I take one of these extra lenses, it is stuffed deep into a pants pocket. I leave everything else on the arena floor and that includes camera bags, lens hoods, cell phone, monopod, and anything else that might accidentally be dropped from up above. Not only are these items superfluous, they pose a risk of serious injury (and possibly even death) to the people below if accidentally dropped.

Another shot taken from a side angle
Some arenas do not have catwalks that run directly above either basket nor directly above center court but you can still position yourself to nab some cool stuff. I like to shoot the fisheye or wide angle lens for team introductions or a shot of the venue but after that it is usually put away. The 300mm on a full frame camera body is ideal from up top because it lets me get close enough to the action while still allowing me to follow it so I don't miss too many shots.

The best shots from overhead are when players are looking up at the rim or at the ball
Even if you aren't directly over a basket, image perspective can be altered somewhat in Photoshop to make images look more like they were taken from directly overhead as in the four examples above that were shot from the side.

By moving around the catwalks and changing locations I get different vantage points and thus different images. I shoot some images vertically but most of the time I stick with a horizontal orientation.

Not your usual game action shots but still interesting images that help tell the game's story
If you're lucky, your arena will have a location from which to shoot that offers a view directly over one or both of the baskets, or at least close enough to being directly overhead that your looking straight down at the basket. That is the ideal situation as you can mix some shots from the sides with shots taken directly overhead.

The grate over the center catwalk supported by girders underneath. Top/center of the image depicts a small opening without a grate that is almost directly over a basket at the Tucker Center. That is what I shoot through over the railing
To me the most desirable images are when the players are looking up, such as the opening tip, going for a rebound, about to release a floater in the lane, or just before a dunk. 

Images shot from almost directly overhead of the baskets
But with a little imagination, other images can add some pop to a set or a portfolio and are there for the taking. I didn't know how the images below would look until I downloaded and opened them in Photoshop. As soon as I did I was very glad I did not delete either of them while shooting.

You never know what will take place on the floor below so you have to stay ready
I usually keep an eye on the game clock and anticipating the media time outs. When I know one is approaching, I'll boogie over to a spot directly above one of the teams and wait for the coaches to do their thing. Not your traditional, vanilla time out image but a unique one.

Two versions of a timeout, one where the team uses its bench to sit (top) and the other where seats are placed on the court for the payers to sit (bottom)
If you're fortunate enough to have catwalks available for use, my recommendation is that you give it a go. On your first visit, get there early and get a feel for what it's like up there and explore the vantage points that exist. Take plenty of test shots to dial in the right exposure and then get ready to create some pretty cool images. If you're like me, your heart will be in your throat until you are safely back down on the court but when you download your cards and take a peek at what you got, you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Squarespace Ain't What It Used To Be....

My new home page which is now a gallery of 20-some images with a little bit of everything included
I'm not quite sure what's up with Squarespace but it doesn't seem to be the same old reliable website design/creation website that I have been using for several years. Over the past few months, I have noticed that my site was taking longer and longer to load, so long that it was becoming a concern. It wasn't because of anything I had done to the site in terms of adding anything or changing things up so I was pretty sure it wasn't due to something on my end.

My new logo - out with
my full name (Miguel
Antonio Olivella and
instead using the name
most people know me
by - Mike Olivella.
The straw that broke the camel's back was when I was told by several people that they had tried to visit my site but that when they clicked on a gallery, loading was insufferably long. So much so that they gave up and moved on to other sites.

That will not cut it. So I contacted Squarespace and asked what was going on. Using Live Chat, I was told by a techie that the likely culprit for slow loading was that my pages had too many images and that the images' file sizes were too large. I was also told that my pages would load a lot faster if I followed some of their guidelines (which I know were never in existence when I first signed on to use Squarespace):
  1. Reduce the file sizes of my images by limiting the pixel width to their "suggested" 1500 px width, and never wider than 2500 px;
  2. Compressing the images so each file size was no more than 500 KB in size; and
  3. Keeping the overall content of each page (in the case of photography sites, photo galleries) to less than 5 MB total per page.
My Home page, just like all my other gallery pages, gives users the option of switching from seeing one large image to a grid based display. Clicking on any of the images in the grid enlarges it to full size.
With all due respect to Squarespace, these "guidelines" are fine for content based web sites but they won't work worth a flip for photography web sites. Do the math - if a gallery page is limited to 5 MB in size and each image is 500 KB, that means each gallery is necessarily limited to 10 images that are only 1500 px wide and are artificially compressed (read quality drastically diminished). That's absurd for photography intensive sites which is how Squarespace originally cut its teeth in the website design/template arena.

Clicking on "SPORTS"
now reveals three Sports
galleries - Team,
Individual, and Art. 
In redoing the site, the
navigation menu for the web has
changed. "FEATURED" is my
 new gallery.  
Photography website designers and consultants will tell you that photo galleries should contain 20 or so images to adequately illustrate one's work. So for Squarespace to "recommend" that page content be limited to 5 MB is not even close to realistic for photography.

Further, how in the world can Squarespace advocate guidelines that "suggest" a 1500 px wide limitation when many of its templates display images in a full bleed format?  Hellooooooo, Squarespace - an iMac has a screen width of well over 2500 px so a full bleed image needs to be 2500 px wide. If you reduce a 2500 px wide image to 1500 px in width you necessarily decrease the visual quality because the image must be stretched by the template to become full bleed. In addition, you further diminish the quality by compressing that 1500 px wide image it to keep it under 500KB which makes it look even crappier when stretched to full bleed.

Not exactly how I want my images displayed for prospective clients, Squarespace.

But the alternative is no better. If it takes too long for an image or a gallery to display, it doesn't do me any good to have 2500 px wide images that are each 1 to 1.5 MB in size, the typical file size for a 2500 px wide JPEG image that is saved in the highest possible quality. No one will ever see them because they will have moved on to another site before the images ever load.
A new page, "Featured" will give me a chance to post recent, notable images in a small gallery
Anyway, after going back and forth with Squarespace for the last few days, I finally bit the bullet and reluctantly resized all of the images on my web site. Using Lightroom, they are now all 2000px wide and have been compressed so as not to exceed 600KB in file size. That's as much of a compromise as I'm willing to make.

I've also added a new photo gallery in my Personal Projects - images from my visit to the 9-11 Memorial in NYC
I then went through each of my galleries and revamped them. Those that exceeded 25 images were split up into at least two galleries. For example, my USA travel images are now in two galleries, one consisting of color images and the other black & white images, each gallery containing no more than 25 images. My old Sports gallery is now three galleries - Team (for football, basketball, baseball, etc.), Individual (for tennis, golf, etc.), and Art (my artsy fartsy, pageantry, non-action type of shots). 

So now my galleries are 20MB or less in total overall size. This is in contrast to my old galleries that ran anywhere from 50 to 60 MB in size.

Preliminary testing shows a noticeable increase in loading speed but still not as seamless as I expected. I'm not quite sure whether that is Comcast's internet service's fault or Squarespace's fault. It remains to be seen whether anyone else will have the same experience or whether they will notice any image degradation so if you're reading this I'd appreciate any feed back as to whether you notice any loading issues or loss of visual quality in the images.

New "Contact" page
Since I had to dig in and revamp the site, I re-did the About page as well as the Contact page. The way the template I'm using is set up, these pages default to the left side of the page instead of giving me the option of centering them. I wish I knew enough about writing code to fix this but I don't. So, I'm contacting Squarespace and asking their techies to help me edit the code to fix this.

Time will tell whether I stay with Squarespace. A lot depends on the feedback I get from people now that I've gone to the trouble of shrinking my image sizes and compressing them. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Grunge It, Part Deux

In Part I of my Blog post on processing images with some "grunge" I tried to show how using this technique can be one of the weapons you should have in your arsenal of image processing. In this segment, I'll walk you through how I create some of my grungy images.

There are a lot of ways to create the grunge effect and it can be as mild or as heavy handed as your taste desires. The grunge effect I typically use is distinguished from another kind of grunge effect where an image is layered over a grungy-like textured background and the opacity of the main image is reduced to allow some of the background grunginess to come through. Here are some examples.

You can create the grunge effect I use in Photoshop, using layers and several of the tools in the program that allow you to transform any image into one with the grunge feel. If you're not interested in devoting that much time and effort into processing, you have another option - OnOne Software's Perfect Effects Photoshop plug-in. Follow along as I show you an easy way to create a grunge composite using Perfect Effects. 

Let's do something unconventional and use a portrait of a woman to create the composite. Normally, I don't want to detract from a woman's beauty by adding grain, heavy contrast, and lots of clarity but I'll go out on a limb and see what happens. I'll start with the background.

I opened the background image in Photoshop. It's a beach wedding scene and you'll see why in a minute.

I clicked on the "File" tab at the top, scrolled down to "Automate", and sent the image to OnOne's Perfect Effects (in this case, it's a module within my Perfect Photo Suite but it's also available as a stand alone plug-in).

On the left side of the screen where the Perfect Effects menus is located, I went to the Grunge tab and opened it to reveal the various options. I selected "Arkham", a dark, grungy preset. and clicked on "Apply" to apply the effect and send the image back to Photoshop with the grunge look.

Now for the model. Before I open that image, a few notes. I shot the image with using some dramatic lighting. I used strip soft boxes slightly behind the model on either side to create a rim light highlight all around her. A beauty dish was set up high and left, at an angle to her face, for my key light. A 4'x8' soft box was positioned in front ant to the right as the fill light. The key light was metered at f11, the fill light at f8, and the strip soft boxes at f5.6. Two additional lights were used to blow out the white seamless paper background metered at f16. These lights reflected some light onto the model's back creating an additional source of rim lighting.

OK, now let's open the image. Why, it's a model in a wedding dress! Fits pretty well with our beach wedding background, huh?

As with the background, I sent it to Perfect Effects and applied the Arkham effect.

I used the Quick Selection Tool to "select" the model and refined the selection using the Edge Detection brush to remove the white background from the tricky areas like the area around the hair, lace, etc.

I then reduced the opacity of the OnOne grunge layer (when the image is sent back to Photoshop from Perfect Effects, it comes back as a separate layer) down to 50% so it wasn't so harsh on the model. If it wasn't a woman, I might or might not reduce the opacity of this layer.

Next, I dragged the image of the model onto the background layer.

From a composition standpoint, I thought it would look better to flip her image horizontally so I used "Edit - Transform - Flip Horizontal" to do so. I then positioned her to my taste.

The next step was reducing the opacity of the background. I didn't want it to detract from the model so I created a duplicate background layer, reduced the opacity of the duplicate background layer, hid the original background layer, and flattened the image.

Because the model's image did not fill the entire frame on the background, I cropped the image at the top to remove the excess background.

Here's the final image.

All in all, it takes approximately fifteen minutes from start to finish. As you go along, adjustments can be made to taste, such as making the grunge effect on the subject more or less prominent. The same goes for the background.

Perfect Effects is available as a download and you can try it out for free before committing to buying it. You can buy just the Perfect Effects module for $59 or the entire suite of software for $109. I've been using their software for years and don't know what I'd do without it.