To wildflower or not wildflower…that is the question

Bluebonnets for a front yard

Bluebonnets for a front yard

And the answer lies on how much rain your part of Texas has received so far this year.

Parents have their toddlers ready, their point and shoot batteries charged, and the blankets washed and ready to plunk down on some prime wild-flower filled Texas landscape.

The 20 million dollar question is will there be any wild flowers there to greet them?

Plan your wildflower trips by using these links/tools:

  • http://www.wildflowerhaven.com/default.aspx
  • http://www.txdot.gov/travel/flora_conditions.htm
  • http://www.desertusa.com/wildflo/tx.html
  • http://www.lone-star.net/wildflowers/sightings.htm
  • If you know of any other places where landscape photographers in Texas keep track of the state’s annual gas-guzzling targets, please let me know.

Dealing with the old and the new

First off…PC World magazine has a great article on how to turn those old photographs in the family album into digital treasures. This is a key item in any family’s history—old photos and photo albums. The problem with giving them a digital treatment stems from the inability to know how to properly make safe backups of these files. It is not enough to simply store them on a blank CD/DVD and put them in a drawer or safe. Nope…

The best thing to do with these digitized old photos is to store them online. Looking for a place to put them? I covered that a couple of months back in my digital photo storage primer, http://jchampion.com/?p=352

NewToy
Having said that..it’s time that I introduce my new toy. It’s a mid-range camera to most but it’s a solid performer with a good record in the camera world. It’s a D90:

Nikon D90

My new Nikon D90

Here is one of my first pictures with it:

Bailey the Golden Retriever mix poses for the new D90

Bailey the Golden Retriever mix poses for the new D90

New Sigma lens for your Nikon

High resolution images of it may be hard to find but fast images with the new Sigma 70-200mm APO EX DG OS HSM for both Nikon and Canon which will make you quite happy.

Sigma 70-200mm f2.8

New lens for your Nikon

The lens uses two FLD panels which will help it give you a clear image, and it also has three SLD glass plates to help prevent abberation.

Now this lens has a large aperture which means that f2.8 will come in handy with your wildlife, wildflower, and even sports photography. While I would not recommend using this to shoot action on say a football or baseball field, it might work well for hockey, basketball, or other indoor sports.

Don’t lose your images to a lossy .jpg

Comparison of the original image with the lossy jpg version of the same photo

Comparison of the original image with the lossy jpg version of the same photo-Courtesy of Rick Miller/Wake Forest University

Before we being, I apologize for my absence. I’ve switched jobs, switched lives basically and am just now getting settled into some kind of routine. Thanks for sticking with me during the past month of silence.

Okay…so if you’re like me you shoot in raw or maybe jpg and then rush over to your PC to download your shots and view them in some tool like Lightroom, Picasa, Microsoft Paint, whatever…

There is a reason why you should not save those precious images in a .jpg format for long term.

Everytime you open a .jpg type image you decompress the image and when you close it, you recompress it. It’s in this recompression that you wind up losing data. To understand why this happens you have to understand how compression works.

Compression works by using an algorithm to compute where changes in your file can be safely made to substitute one character for several. Now for you techies…this is a major simplification of the process. There is actually a lot that happens but suffice it to say that the original file that you started out with is stored in a compressed format. JPG uses this to reduce the size of the file and there are two formats…lossless and lossy.

If you are using lossy, you are also using a format that loses data. So everytime you open a file in Picasa, Photoshop, John’s photo viewer, etc…you are losing data. So over time, that image of your loved one, pet, flower, or something else over time, and multiple openings and closings, will start showing noticeable signs of deterioration in the digital version.

So what’s the solution? Save images in a lossless .jpg format or save them in an entirely different format like tiff, or maybe even .bmp (yes…a bitmap). Another option is to save original in their raw format that your camera shots them in, and use a lossless .jjpg for sharing and use a tiff/bmp on those images that you want to save for a very long time.

If your images are already in a lossy .jpg format. save them in a different format like tiff now. If you are just now importing images from your camera in a nice raw file mode, leave them in that mode and work with/use .jpg copies for short periods of time. Of course you can always make digital copies of your jpgs and share them.

More about online photo storage

Well I told you a couple of months ago that I would give you some additional information regarding online photo storage and there has been a little movement in the market as prices have come down a little bit and services have become easier to use and access. So let’s review my top five online digital photography storage sites.

First let’s review my criteria for selecting someplace to store your images online:

  1. Provides you with tools to upload multiple images off of your PC/Camera at one time
  2. Provides you with access to your images regardless of platform (PC/Phone/etc)
  3. Provides you with quality service around the clock
  4. Provides you the ability to have backups of your image collection
  5. The service does not automatically resize your images or provides you with tools to restore their original size
  6. The service gives you control over who looks at and downloads your images

With that in mind, here are my top 7 online image hosting services. These are in no particular order. I do this because I want you to go to each site and maybe look up one or two of your own and see which ones you will think can work best for your needs.

  1. Adobe Photoshop.com starts you with 2GB of storage for free but that’s not this site’s strength. Oh no…this site’s strength is in its editting
    tools. These tools allow you to make basic image edits like remove red eye, crop the image, or make some basic changes. For $20/year, you
    can buy 20GB of space. And you can expect to pay $1/GB for each increase above that.
  2. Flickr’s free account provides you with a monthly upload/download limit which has changed and continues to change. For $25/year you get
    unlimited photo and video storage.
  3. Smugmug is service geared at semi-professional and professional photographers. For $40/$60/$150 a year you can have more control over the
    site that presents your images. All plans have unlimited storage and allow you universal access to your images. The high end plan gives you
    complete control over the page that displays your images plus the way you sell your photographs.
  4. Photobucket is an Internet staple. Free accounts get 500 MB of online storage and you are allowed up to 10GB of downloadable bandwidth per
    month. There is a 1MB size limit per photo so if you use a Canon Mark V with the 77MB raw files, this is not going to be the solution for
    you. However for $25 a year, those limitations are removed and you get to post images up to 4000×3000 plus access to their technical support
    team
  5. Webshots by American Greetings, is a service that comes with the ability to use your images or the predefined images of other photographers
    into your projects. What this means is that there is also a likelihood for others to have access to your images for things like calendars, coffee
    mugs, and the like. They give you a 1000 image limit and then boost that with 100 extra images for every month that you remain a member of
    their free plan. For $20/year, those restrictions are limited but this offering is among the least favorable ones for photographers looking to post
    the thousands of images they generate a year.

Now there are some prominent sites that I left out. I left them out for a reason. Either I am not a fan of their policies or I do not like the software they ask the user to use for their site. However everyone is different and I urge you to research these other sites as well.

If you have any additional questions, just ask.

Camera Classes

LADay1-82
So from time to time it may be a good idea to take a class, either online or in-person to remember how this whole capture of light thing works. A few notes from the class I took over the weekend for those of you with new DSLR cameras.

1) Auto format–good if you really don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s like walking up to a baker and saying “make me a cake” and you get a strawberry banana cake when you wanted German chocolate. You didn’t specify what kind of cake and the same holds true for taking photographs.

2) ISO–you cannot overstate the importance of having the proper ISO for your conditions. If you are outside on a bright sunny day, ISO 200 or even 400 will work for you but at twilight, time to open that thing up higher and start approaching the 1600 range as lighting degrades. Experiment with different ISO settings to see how this works. It’s a DSLR and the space on a memory card is cheap. Blowing that once in a lifetime shot may not be so expendable.

3) Aperture (f-stop) — this is how big the hole is in the lens that lets light through. The bigger the hole, the more light shines through. It’s sorta like the family idiot…everyone knows he’s got a big enough hole in his head that you can see clean down to his gullet but he just won’t quit showing it off. Same is true here. The lower the number, the larger the opening. If you can find a lens with a 2.8, 1.8, 1.4 or so aperture then you can grab some really intense photos in low light. Conversely, if you have a smaller aperture lens, say a f4-6.3, you have what is called a slow lens. It’s slow because it requires more time for the shutter to remain open in lower lighting to achieve a decent image. That also means that your image is more prone to blurry shots because nothing really stands still long enough anymore. Well except for the oldest brother in my family…he sits still for so long, Mom had to dust him as a child…oh wait…that was me.

4) and finally…Shutter speed. This is how fast the shutter opens and closes to control how much light passes through the lens and into the sensor. It also determines how your image will be captured. A fast shutter speed means that you will stop motion faster but it also means that your aperture must be opened more in order for enough light to pass through to get a good enough image to use.  If you look at the photo above, you can see where I stopped the helicopters rotors in flight. It’s a neat trick but I must confess…the camera was on auto…and what was that about strawberry banana cake again.

Questions? Let me know…you can look online for digital photography classes in your community. Check with your local community college for continuing education classes as well as check with local camera shops. That’s where I took mine…and it only cost me $30 for two and a half hours of refreshing my brain. I wish I could do that for math. But if you are in the San Antonio area, check the Camera Exchange website and let them know you read about it here on Jchampion.com.

They aren’t paying me anything but I figure if I get enough referrals they might let me take the next class for free.

Are you finding flowers?

Honeybee atop a bluebonnet
Bee atop bluebonnet found in local park

The flowers are out and it’s time to gas up and head to some quiet country road with your trusty camera and shoot some shots.

Please remember your common sense…never stop in a dark and isolated place. One reason is that you may get really bad shots there and you also run a greater risk for something bad happening to you.
But please use the side roads and stay off of the roadway and make sure you keep yours eyes open. Do not let yourself get caught up in the moment, and lose track of where you are.
Take your time, take as many shots as you want but do not take any of these flowers with you. Remember, under Texas law, certain plants are protected and taking one or two is considered a criminal offense.
Also, I can’t state this enough, please check the ground thoroughly before placing a child down in a flower patch. Ants and other bugs love flowers too.
Finally…send me your best shots and tell us what you did and used to get this shot. Some of the best things in photography are the stories in how you got that perfect shot.

Wild Flowers are popping up

Wildflowers are blooming-Sandia Cemetary

Wildflowers blooming in the cemetary in Sandia, TX

It’s time to prepare your cameras and your bug spray and venture out to your nearest patch of wildflowers. Here are some basic tips for finding and shooting those winning flower pictures.

1)Finding the right patch is easy. TxDOT actually does something right by publishing a list of where the best wildflower patches can be found. There may be more and you may want to do a Google search on Texas Wildflowers and find the list. This season is expected to be one of the best ever and it’s a good chance for you to take those cameras that you got at Christmas and go get some experience. Here is a link to the Texas Department of Transportation list

2) Take your children but please LOOK AT THE GROUND before you put them down. It’s borderline cruelty to drop small children on top of ant hills and ask them to hold still while you take their photograph.

3) Frame your shots. Do not just point your camera at the field and get the whole field alone. If you feel like that is a great photo, certainly take it.  But in addition to that shot, you should walk around look for exceptional shots or flowers with brilliant color.  and then follow the basic rules of thirds in taking your shot.

4) Add something different to the shot to break up  the floral scene. Notice the cemetary shot that I have posted with this. It uses a grave marker as a piece to break up the scene and to also give the viewer some idea of the relationships between  the flowers, the graves, and the cemetary.  You might use your dog, your child, an old broken down tractor, or something else all-together.

5) Do not simply take the photo and upload it. Bring it home and spend some time with it on a computer. Adjust the lighting, play with the settings. Every camera comes with basic software to do the most basic editing functions. Please do not take this to mean to go out, buy a $1,000 overpriced copy of Adobe Photoshop.  There are are many free image editing solutions that go beyond the basic features of the software that came with your camera. Google search them or try a search on Download.com but be careful. Malware takes on many forms and you should only download from sites you trust or that come recommended. If you have questions about software packages, feel free to ask me or check out DPReview.com, About.com, Photoshop.com or any other photocentric site.

6) Have fun. This should be enjoyable and not a hassle. If you find yourself struggling or inconvenienced by taking the time to take these shots, perhaps this is not for you.

Happy shooting!

How do you photograph falling snow?

Snow in downtown San Antonio

Snow in downtown San Antonio

So this week I learned a new lesson on how NOT to shoot photographs of falling snow. I took one shot and realized that I needed to crank up the speed of my D40. So I cranked up the ISO instead and still had no luck. So what I have discovered is that I was on the right path but you should try using flash and shooting against a dark background as much as possible. In the end it is smarter to crank your shutter speed as fast that it will go. Then, in Photoshop, GIMP, Lightroom, or Appature open the image and crank up the contrast. I tried those thing and prepped this image in Lightroom and you be the judge. Drop me a line if you have better ideas on how to get the snow to look less like heavy rain.

Did you get a new DSLR for the holidays?

You knew it would happen. You got the camera you wanted and it’s a beginner and maybe the lens(es) that come with it are not exactly what you were hoping for but believe me, they will work well while you learn.

The first thing you need to do now is find a challenge for yourself on that camera. Go out and use it and shoot images of something. Kids playing in the park, deer eating your neighbors’ flowers, maybe even hit the local sporting facilities and shoot photos of athletes doing their thing.

Just use the camera.

The next thing you should do is learn the main rules of good photography and composition that you can get from here:  http://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/photography-the-rules-of-composition/

It’s important to learn how to take photographs well. It gets boring seeing the same setup on every single photo. First rule…do not center every photograph and go on and get close to where the action is. Headroom is one thing but footroom and composition is very important.

Let’s talk about another area of focus…tools. Right now the only tool you need is you. You are equipped with everything you need to take good photographs. You do not need to buy a $200 tripod nor a $10,000 lens nor a $1000 flash. Step back…buy those things only when you need them and if you’ll use them more than once.

If you’re only going to use the camera component once or twice, consider renting. What? You can rent lenses, flashes, and tripods? Yes…and you can even rent another camera.

Just do a Google search for camera rental and check out the vendors. You can also check in your community. Stores like Camera Exchange in San Antonio, rent equipment and should you decide to buy it, they apply some of your rental fees to your purchase.

Next time…I’ll update you on when you can go wildflower hunting and where you can get the best clusters. Hint: you will need to get in a car and drive. Sorry…your backyard isn’t going to cut it unless you live on a farm.