Tower Rock, Full Moon and HDR

Tower Rock full moon 07-22-2013 7300-7302_HDR2Warning: photo geek stuff to follow. If you’d rather just look at pictures of Tower Rock and the Mississippi River under the full moon, click them to make them larger.

I grew up doing Plain Jane photography. All I had to think about  was film type (color or black and white), film speed, shutter speed, aperture and focal length of the lens. Color / black and white was easy: until I got to The Palm Beach Post, all my work photography was black and white.

I almost always used Kodak Tri-X film for everything except available dark photography, where I experimented with all kinds of exotic film and developer combinations to be able to shoot where you could barely see.

Film speed and f/stops determined how much light hit the film. If you wanted to stop action, you’d use a fast shutter speed and a wide lens opening. If you wanted lots of stuff sharp, you’d stop down the lens and be forced to use a slower shutter. It’s all about math.

Lens choices were equally easy: want to get lots of stuff in, use a wide angle; want to shoot something a long way off, grab a telephoto.

Menus have menu menus

My new Nikon D7000 has more menus than a classy restaurant.  The submenus have submenus, most of which I have never explored. The other night, though, I ventured into the unknown. If I have time, I usually bracket my exposures: in other words, I shoot one at what the camera or I think is right, then I go an interval above and below that exposure in case the camera or I have made a bad first choice. I print or publish the one with the best action, composition, sharpness and/or exposure.

The  problem is that film, paper and sensors don’t have the range of the human eye. We can usually see detail in dark areas and bright areas at the same time. Cameras can’t – or couldn’t.

Enter HDR

Tower Rock 07-22-2013 7378-7380_HDR2There’s magic in those menus. I opted to enter the land of High-Dynamic-Range imaging, better known as HDR. It shoots those same bracketed images, then allows them to be reassembled into one picture. To be honest, I’ve avoided fooling with it because too many people use it to create what we called in school “technically dominated art shots.” Pictures, in other words, where how you did it becomes more important than the content of the photo.

Just because it’s magic doesn’t mean that it’s always GOOD magic. The photo immediately above looks like it could have been shot during the day. It saved too much ambient light. It was taken at 9:40 p.m. when I had to boost the ISO from 200 to 1000. The three exposures for this shot were 13 seconds, 6 seconds and 25 seconds. All were at f/5. I told the camera to overexpose the image by about 4 times because the meter was sensing all the lights from the shore and the reflections of the water and stopping down.

The photo at the top of the page was taken at 9:04 p.m. when I had the ISO set to 200. The exposures were 13 seconds, six seconds and 25 seconds @ f/3.5. I told the camera to overexpose by a factor of 1.33. The colored blur is a barge making its way upstream.

Old ways sometimes better

Tower Rock whirlpool full moon 07-22-2013_7338Because HDR merges photos taken slight intervals apart, sometimes you lose nice detail that is moving. This single frame shows the whirlpool south of Tower Rock starting to form. You can just barely make out the swirl. I zoomed to 55mm and set the ISO to 200. The exposure was 15 seconds @f/4. I overexposed by two stops.

Boat with HDR

Full moon off Tower Rock 07-22-2013 7372-7374_HDR2I’m not overly excited by this HDR shot of a towboat that conveniently paused across from us for some time.

Boat without HDR

Tow off Tower Rock full moon 07-22-2013_7374This is a single frame from the sequence that made up the vertical photo above. I cropped it tighter (just a little bit too tight at the top) and turned it into a horizontal. I find the moon less interesting than the idea of a pilot feeling his way up the Mississippi like pilots have been doing since the days when travelers were first devoured by the demons inhabiting Tower Rock.

Now that I’ve been exposed to HDR, I’ll use it like a torque wrench: something nice to have, but not a tool I grab every day.

Cape Hit With Ice Storm

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2448What we got wasn’t quite as bad as what had been predicted, but it was enough to be interesting. Mother and I stocked up the fridge Tuesday (it’s not like Florida where you have to worry about things melting if the power goes off) and hauled in a bunch of firewood. The latest delivery must be dry wood because we’ve gone through almost a whole season’s worth and it’s not yet March.

To be on the safe side, we decided to cut some trees that had fallen. When my back started hurting from bending over, I started looking up at the sky and thinking, “Any time now, any time. I could use an excuse to quit.”

NOW, you start

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2490Well, wouldn’t you know it, just as I made my last cut, I felt something hit my sleeve. “NOW, you start,” I thought.

It started peppering down and turned the ground white pretty quickly. I was supposed to meet two friends at Wib’s for lunch. One bailed, but the other said he’d show if I did. I figured the roads had been treated enough that I-55 and Hwy 61 should be clear. What I didn’t count on was that the freezing rain had put a solid 1/4″ coating of ice over every exposed inch of my van. Even with deicer and the defroster running, it took a good 15 minutes to make big enough holes in the ice to see out.

Northbound on I-55, I fell in about a quarter mile behind a salt truck. The road was wet, but didn’t have any slush buildup yet. About halfway to Jackson, I came upon two wrecks in the median.

Snow PLOWS, not just salt trucks

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2471While we were eating, it looked like the sleet had turned to some pretty heavy rain. As I pulled out of Wib’s, though, a snow plow passed with his plow down. That’s not a good sign, I thought.

The southbound ramp at the Fruitland intersection has a little grade to it. There was just enough standing slush to make me start to spin a couple of times. The road was now getting covered enough that you wanted to drive in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you. When I started up Kingsway Drive, I had to watch my foot on the accelerator to keep from spinning out. It was definitely getting slicker and I could see icy buildup on the power lines.

Whiskers of icicles

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2527When I got to the driveway, bushes and trees in our yard were sporting whiskers of icicles. I shot a few pictures, but didn’t really want to get cold and wet. Retired, you know.

I went downstairs to get some work done and stayed there until after dark. The police scanner was busy with reports of fender-benders, trees and powerlines down and generally nastiness. That’s when I looked across the street and saw an ice-covered tree sparkling like a diamond-covered dowager at a Palm Beach ball. I couldn’t resist. I had to get in the car and cruise around. I did that with some trepidation, because I remember what happened on one of those excursions in my 1959 Buick LaSabre station wagon.

Giving thanks

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2555As I pulled out of the driveway, I thought to myself, I owe some thanks to some folks. First, to Dad, for teaching me to be careful, but not afraid. To Mother (who uncharacteristically declined my offer of a ride-along) for teaching me to respect weather, but not to cower from it until that last minute before you have to run to the basement. That curiosity has led me to chase hurricanes and tornadoes and to convince Lila that it’s perfectly safe to stand next to the tallest thing around during a lightning storm so you can get a good photo..

And, to Sons Matt and Adam for giving me an early birthday present: a new 55-200mm Nikon lens. All but one of the photos here today were taken with that lens. It’s a honey. The only bad thing is that now I’m going to have to look for a second camera body because I hate switching lenses, particularly when it’s precipitating outside.

I’m glad I went out when I did. The way water was running in the streets, I think the temperatures are going to go above freezing and the ice may be gone before I drag myself out of bed.

Photo tips for shooting ice storms at night

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2704

  • Safety first. Don’t get so busy looking for a photo that you drive into a tree or limb or power line across the road.
  • Don’t count on your meter to automatically set your exposure because you’re going to be dealing with areas that have lots of blacks or lots of highlights in them. If the scene was mostly dark, I would tell the camera to underexpose by as much as two to three stops (four in a couple of cases). If the picture has a lot of lights or highlights, your meter is going to tell the camera to stop down because it wants to render those highlights as a neutral gray. You have to tell it, “Hey, I WANT those highlights to go hot: open up two to three stops more than the meter says.”
  • A tripod or monopod is your friend. Some of these photos aren’t as sharp as I would like because they are all hand-held. It was just too chilly for me to muck around with a cold metal tripod for what you guys pay me. I lost several good shots because it’s hard to hold a camera steady at 1/4 or 1/2 second when you’re shivering.
  • The only concession I made was to boost my base ISO to 400 instead of the usual 200, and to tell it to make the camera go to a higher ISO anytime the exposure time went under 1/60 of a second (I usually have it set for 1/30).
  • I DID mention, be careful, right?

Don’t fight the light

Cape ice storm 02-21-2013_2678You won’t realize how many different shades of light there are until you look at your photos. It’s not worth trying to correct for them in the camera, and it’s probably not worth trying to clean up the colors in post-production, either. Just appreciate them for what they’re worth and throw away the ones you can’t stand.

Gallery of ice photos

Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.