Williamsburg Bridge - New York In Miniature

My HDR, faux tilt-shift of the Williamsburg Bridge as seen from the Empire State Building in New York City. (As opposed to the Empire State Building in Barkersville, Montana.)

Charles Bank Gallery - HDR Breakdown

Charles Bank Gallery by Thomas Gehrke
Charles Bank Gallery, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.
This building caught my eye on a recent trip to New York City. Both the architecture and the graffiti made it stand out. It was only last night while looking up its location in order to geotag the photo that I found out that this is an art gallery.

In the "canyons of New York City" you will find architecture that lives both in bright sunlight and deep shadow. To me that seems to be a great opportunity to bring some HDR photography into play.

Time and again you will hear me say (or read me write) that High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is more than just that trippy style that results in noisy, super-saturated, haloed images that most people think of. I much prefer to see the style used in a more realistic way. In a way that more closely represents what the eye saw at the time. For instance...

Walking up the street, my eye saw nearly all of the graffiti regardless of sunlight or shadow. I won't get into the discussion regarding whether the eye sees a greater range or if it merely adjusts for light and dark areas and then the brain puts all of the pieces together for the full range. The point is that by the time I'm seeing it, I'm pretty much seeing it all.

Cameras "see" differently and it takes something to put the exposures together into something that more closely resembles what we perceive as reality. That something is typically a piece of software and in my case the software was HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro.

Here's the breakdown....


In the "0ev" image, which is closest to a proper exposure, there are some details lost. There is some high-end clipping (overexposed) areas in the windows and the headlights of the taxi cab. That's really not too bad. But on the low end (underexposed) we're really missing quite a bit of graffiti in the shadows. Fortunately in the "+2ev" photo, we see those dark areas a bit more clearly even if the rest of the building ends up being overexposed.

The next step is to bring Photomatix into play to combine those three exposures and give us something that contains the most detailed areas of each. That's easier said than done. Search for HDR images online and you will find examples of beginners who just pick a Photomatix preset and call it a day. Some of the results are terrible, some are interesting and some might be pretty good. But to get the best, most realistic results, you need to learn what each of the controls do. There are plenty of tutorials and books out there to help people figure that out.

(For the record, I consider myself somewhat middling when it comes to my HDR processing skills. It's something I continue to work on.)

Most of the time I find what comes out of Photomatix to be a little "flat" and I move on into Photoshop for the final touches. This typically involves adjusting composition (cropping/rotating), noise reduction, contrast, localized exposure, saturation and so on. The goal being to come up with a final product that doesn't scream "I'm an HDR photograph!" while still giving us the benefits of having used those techniques.

Join the conversation here on Google+ and let me know what you think!

Blogger Dynamic Views: Jumping In With Both Feet

Within minutes of tweeting out my previous blog post about a couple nits I had with the new Dynamic Views in Blogger, I got a response from Antin Harasymiv who is a software engineer at Blogger. He was incredibly nice and instructive. (Thanks, Antin!)

Regarding the issue with search that I noted:
While I really like the "live" search box (blog posts are filtered as you enter your search terms), not all of my posts show up. I would assume that if I can get a hit via Google by using "<search term> site:blog.thomasgehrke.com", that I should also get a hit when I enter just "<search term>" from the search on my Blogger site. This is not the case.
This is apparently a known issue and it's being looked at. Since this probably is only an issue for me (most people find my blog from Bing, Yahoo! or Google itself), this isn't a show-stopper for me.

As far as my second gripe goes:
Posts show month and day, but not the year. This is a pet peeve of mine. Content without an obvious time stamp loses context. Consider a technical article that describes the fix for a problem. Without a date context, you don't know if the fix is still applicable or not. You don't even know if the problem described is the same as the problem you are having even if they sound very similar.
Antin told me that if you hover over the date ribbon, you get a time description relative to the current date. So that would be something like "13 hours ago", "2 weeks ago" or the year if it was prior to the current.


It's not as obvious as I would like and other views like Sidebar are still without date context since they don't display the ribbon (if I find out differently, I'll update this post), but I'm OK with that for now.

So, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, I made the switch. Let me know what you think.



Blogger Dynamic Views Anyone?

Any Blogger users out there who have switched to Dynamic Views (click http://blog.thomasgehrke.com/view/classic to see what I'm talking about)? I played with them a few days ago and really wanted to switch, but I've got a couple of concerns.
  1. While I really like the "live" search box (blog posts are filtered as you enter your search terms), not all of my posts show up. I would assume that if I can get a hit via Google by using "<search term> site:blog.thomasgehrke.com", that I should also get a hit when I enter just "<search term>" from the search on my Blogger site. This is not the case. 
  2. Posts show month and day, but not the year. This is a pet peeve of mine. Content without an obvious time stamp loses context. Consider a technical article that describes the fix for a problem. Without a date context, you don't know if the fix is still applicable or not. You don't even know if the problem described is the same as the problem you are having even if they sound very similar. 
 Otherwise dynamic views look neat. There seems to be just enough ability for customization to make me switch if I could find a way past these two problems.

 Am I being too picky? Has anyone else run into this?

Join the discussion here.

UPDATE: See my follow-up post here to see why I went ahead with Dynamic Views.

Pigeonholed

Pigeonholed by Thomas Gehrke
Pigeonholed, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.
I've really been struggling with this one and it's to the point where, imperfect as it may be, I need to get it out of my system and on to other things before all of you who have recently started following me in various places (Flickr, Google+) start thinking, "What's this guy do all the time?!"

So here's the deal... I took this from the room I was staying in which was very close to Times Square. I thought the pattern created by the clouds overhead were interesting as was the art deco style of the building (a little Gotham City-ish). I took three exposures to make sure I got detail in the heavily sunlit areas as well as the deeper shadows and thought I had something pretty good to work with.

Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where what was in my head hasn't worked out as well as I had hoped. My angle was pretty fixed and because of the way the buildings are arranged, my options for composition were extremely limited.

One of the things that struck me while I was taking my pictures is how each of these windows probably represented a person. And if they represented people, then the building represented an organized storage system for rows and stacks of people. Thus the Pigeonholed title. (I considered Personholed since we aren't talking about pigeons, but that seemed... ill advised.)

To fix some composition problems as well as to give the impression that the building might go on far beyond the borders of the photo, I adjusted the lines to make for a more isometric projection look. I think his worked really well in the upper, right-hand corner with the deep shadows.

I'm still not completely happy with it so please feel free to chime in with your thoughts. Constructive criticism is always welcome. It's how I learn.

At any rate, maybe I can get past my block now and start posting photos with a little more regularity.

Autumn Hay - Desktop Background

Autumn Hay by Thomas Gehrke
Autumn Hay, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.
Just a quick and simple shot from my trip to New Haven, Connecticut.

If you want to feel like you are outdoors and napping in the middle of a field under a nice Fall sky, but you don't want any of the associated unpleasantness like itching, insects and hay-fever, this might be a decent wallpaper for you.

Grab it here

If you want to, that is. I'm not going to twist your arm or anything.

Liberty Island

Liberty Island by Thomas Gehrke
Liberty Island, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.

There are some photographs that I post that I like more than others. Maybe it goes without saying that anything that I post publicly is something that I like to some degree at that point in time. As my meager skills improve, either on the camera side or editing side, or as better tools become available to me, I occasionally come to loathe some of my older work.

With that said, I really like this one. Although it has very little to do with any sort of technical or artistic merits and more to do with the experience. Two aspects in particular I'd like to talk about.

First there was the emotional impact of seeing the Statue of Liberty in real life.

[This pause was inserted to give time to those who know me personally to regain consciousness and pick themselves off the floor.]

I'm not known as an overtly emotional person. In fact, you probably would not have noticed any changes in my demeanor if you were with me at the time. I did not break down and start crying or anything like that. But standing there, in person, and seeing this sight with my own eyes... well, it had an impact. There wasn't a swelling feeling of blind patriotism. It wasn't a feeling of pride. I'm half Italian, so while jokes abound, I have no relatives who immigrated to the US this way as far as I know. So there was no feeling of walking in the footsteps of my ancestors.

Frankly, I'm not sure what the feeling was.

You see pictures of the Statue of Liberty all the time. Everyone knows what it looks like. We've all seen hundreds of pictures of her (at least). So when we see a photograph I'm sure that most of us probably don't give it much thought at all.

But when you are there in person it is much easier to imagine what all of the people who were there before you might have felt. Was it hope? Pride? Patriotism? Relief? All of the above? Something else entirely? All of a sudden you are hit by a feeling that this pile of copper and steel and stone is much greater than the sum of its parts. You understand that it is an inanimate object, but it's also something more.

What that something is will be different for everyone.

The second reason I like this picture is because it gives me a feeling of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, I tend to be a lazy photographer. The things that we are all supposed to do in preparation for the shot, things like checking lighting levels, setting shutter speed, aperture, choosing the right equipment, focusing, composing the shot, well I am hit or miss on many of those things.

Mentally, I know what I have to do. I also know that while some things can be fixed after the fact, your best final products start with the highest quality materials. It's pretty obvious. But when you are in The Moment and excited about what is going on and picturing how good that final print will look on your wall or in a post on Google+, Flickr or your blog, everything you know goes flying right out the window. The best photographers are those who have trained themselves to do all of these things without thought. It's second nature to them.

I am nowhere close to the best. I am nowhere close to as good as I think my potential is so I have to work at it. I have to force myself think about it.

So how does that apply to this particular picture?

I took two lenses with me on my vacation. They were the two that gave me the most options between wide-angled shots and telephoto shots. I decided that I should only take one of those to the island. It was my 18-50mm Sigma.

Next, I mentally composed the shot I wanted. I wanted something with lots of sky and water with a straight ahead view of the statue. The only way to get it was on a ferry in the middle of the harbor.

I knew I wanted to try getting some bracketed exposures for some HDR processing which meant making sure that the shots could be taken pretty quickly given the fact that I was on a boat in motion both vertically (waves) and horizontally. Because the platform was moving, I would only have one shot at this.

While I waited for just the right moment, I dialed in my focus. I cannot tell you how many times I've been excited about a picture that looked great in the viewfinder and great on the camera's LCD but slightly to horribly out of focus when reviewed on the computer. If I am going to mess something up, it's usually here.

I also framed the shot as best I could while the ferry steamed on. If you check the EXIF data, you'll find that the focal length was set to 23mm. That is unusual for me since I usually live at the extremes. I can always crop things later, right? No! Bad! It's think then shoot! Not shoot and then fix your mistakes later.

And it all worked. No cropping or rotating required. For me it was the photographic equivalent of a golfer's hole-in-one.

I'm not saying it's the best photo in the world. Obviously it's not. Maybe it's not even the best, most artistic one I've personally ever taken. But it's one of the rare moments where I, in my few years as someone who enjoys photography as a hobby, composed, planned, executed and ended up with exactly what I had envisioned. This is the picture that I had in my mind's eye as we boarded the ferry to leave the island. This is the sum of all the emotions I felt as we landed and I looked up at the statue.

This is what photographers try to do. They create something that conveys feelings they themselves might have had that they want to share with you. And they try to leave things open to interpretation so that if a picture moves you emotionally, it is in a way that is colored by your own beliefs and experiences.

I like this picture and I really hope you do to. For whatever reason.

The Sphere

The Sphere by Thomas Gehrke
The Sphere, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.
Excerpt from the Wikipedia article:
The Sphere is a large metallic sculpture by German sculptor Fritz Koenig, currently displayed in Battery Park, New York City, that once stood in the middle of Austin J. Tobin Plaza, the area between the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. After being recovered from the rubble of the Twin Towers after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the artwork faced an uncertain fate, and it was dismantled into its components. Although it remained structurally intact, it had been visibly damaged by debris from the airliners that were crashed into the buildings and from the collapsing skyscrapers themselves.

Six months after the attacks, following a documentary film about the sculpture, it was relocated to Battery Park on a temporary basis—without any repairs—and formally rededicated with an eternal flame as a memorial to the victims of 9/11. It has become a major tourist attraction, due partly to the fact that it survived the attacks with only dents and holes.
Three exposure handheld HDR. Started in Lightroom, tonemapped in Photomatix Pro and finished off in Photoshop.

U-Turns - Four Lessons From An Idiot


I had planned on posting a new photo from my New York trip this morning, but instead you get me talking about the mistakes I've made in the past day. I know, I know... it's hard to believe.

What? Why am I doing this and why should you care?

As to the first question, it's because I can. Nobody makes a better target for me to ridicule than I do.

Should you care? Well that just depends. Hopefully you are all smarter than I am and never make the same silly decisions that I do. But on the off chance that you might be tempted to follow in my foolish footsteps, consider this a warning.

When I got home from work yesterday, I pulled up my collection of photos from New York, picked a shot that I thought would be fun to work on and then dived right in. And just kept on diving. After several hours (Probably. I lost track of time.) and with great satisfaction, I kicked off what I planned to be my final edit before calling the photo complete.

How right I was.

And how wrong.

The last task was to apply a CPU-intensive filter to the entire image that would not have altered its appearance greatly unless viewing it at full size or having a print made. The progress window appeared... and then disappeared. Uh oh... did it finish? Sometimes I have to click back into Photoshop for the image to refresh. I'll try that.

*BONG!*

What the...? I'll try again.

*BONG!*

Oh, no... I've been here before.

*Click* *BONG!*

*Click* *BONG!*

*clickBONGclickBONGclickBONG*

(The "bong" is the Mac's default alert sound, "Funk". Yeah... I know what you're thinking. For those who have never had the pleasure of a Mac telling you how badly you just screwed up, click here to grab an MP3 version of the file and then loop it.)


What appears to happen on occasion is that Photoshop thinks it isn't the active window. What should be the active window is the filter progress dialog. But sometimes the filter locks up or disappears and Photoshop accepts no input of any kind at this point.

Specifically, any input which might result in saving the file I was working on.

A file that has not, in its lifetime (and this is where you take notes), ever... been... saved.

Yes, you read that correctly. I went several hours without saving my work.

LESSON #1: Save your work FREQUENTLY. If you think you are, you aren't. Trust me on this one.


(Nobody mention Mac OSX Lion features to me, please. Until Adobe implements support for Auto Save and Versioning in Photoshop, pointing out the fact that those things are built into the operating system is just rubbing salt in my wounds.)

Well, I hadn't eaten yet and it was getting late. I thought a break would be in order after which I would return to my desk and start from scratch. Odds are, now that I had been through the process once, my second attempt would be done more quickly and with better results. That's how it usually works.

How right I was.

And how wrong.

In a mere fraction of the time (probably about 2 hours) I had something that was superior to my first attempt. Superior in more than a This-File-Actually-Exists-On-A-Hard-Drive kind of way.

But it was late and I hate posting things at the end of the day. I decide to head to bed and post it first thing in the morning.

That would have been this morning. I got up, showered, dressed and pulled up the picture I had been so proud of the night before.

What the...?! There is no way I'm going to post this pile o' poo!

Sadly, I still recognize that this second version, as bad as I think it might be, is still better than the first, never-saved version. It is at this point that I realize that Photoshop probably did not crash. I think it was actually trying to save me from myself by saying, "Look, friend, I know you have put a lot of time into this thing and I think it's cute how excited you are over various aspects of your little picture, but... truth is that I can't let you do this. Give me the keys. You have had too much. You're done here."

Friends don't let friends Photoshop garbage. If it looks like an overly processed HDR photo, then it probably is.

It was.

So I started from scratch a third time.

LESSON #2: Never let the fact that you have invested an inordinate amount of time creating something stop you from starting over once you realize it's no good. Face it. Crap doesn't get better with age like a fine cheese or wine.


(Nobody mention Casu Marzu (maggot cheese) or Ttongsul (Korean wine made with feces) in an attempt to make some sort of counter-point. You're wrong. End of subject.)

Since this was all done before work this morning, my time was limited, but in about 10 minutes I already had something better than the previous two versions. Definitely something that I could build on later when I had more time.

I then decided to write this all down because...

LESSON #3: Never take yourself so seriously that you fail to find the humor in your own stupidity.


...and...

LESSON #4: Always be willing to prove to others how ridiculous you are. Especially if there is an opportunity to entertain, educate and/or motivate.

Sky Mosaic

Sky Mosaic by Thomas Gehrke
Sky Mosaic, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.
A three exposure HDR photo of 17 State Street in New York City.

When sightseeing in a very well known area, camera in hand, sometimes I get a little discouraged. I mean, come on. Every picture has been taken from every angle imaginable. How do you do what someone else has done before you and make it all your own?

I don't really know the answer to that question. You just kind of do what you do and if people like it (and, more importantly, if you like it) that's all you can hope for.

Now one thing I do find comfort in is shots like this one. Granted, it's not the most inspired in terms of angles and perspective. But you know what? On that day and at that particular time, the clouds were just so and that created a pattern on the skyscraper that will never be the same ever again for anyone else. That makes it unique and it makes it mine.

And I like it.

Steve Jobs Died Yesterday

I'm sure you know this already. I'm also reasonably sure that once you read that headline, you have probably gone on to other things. And that's OK. You are likely a much wiser and more well adjusted person than I am.

I missed all of the initial hubbub when Steve died. I was sitting in a hotel in New Haven, Connecticut when I was told, "Steve Jobs died."

My response was, "Really?"

"Yeah. It's on TV. Every channel."

I was sad. Not depressed or distraught. Just sad. And I could not for the life of me understand why.

I missed the news at the time because I had been reading a book on my iPad while my iPhone was charging after having used it all day for communication, navigation, information and entertainment purposes. The MacBook Pro was dutifully accepting the photos that I had taken during the day.

Oh. Yeah.

So just like the millions of others in the "Cult of Mac", maybe I was sad because we lost our leader.

No. I don't think that's it really.

I've read many things this morning about how Steve is the da Vinci or the Edison of our time. I understand and don't completely disagree. But I wonder if it's more than that.

Were any of the people that made such an impact recognized during their lifetimes as having such an impact? Or recognized so globally? So immediately?

I don't know. I haven't done the research. But this feels like a new thing. Like Steve was the first "giant of innovation" in our time to move on.

Maybe that explains the sadness.

It's also not about how "my CEO could beat up your CEO" or "my 'tech hero' is bigger than your 'tech hero'." People who don't care a thing about business or technology are talking about the news.

Whether you're sad or not. Whether you know why you feel the way you do or not. The fact remains. Steve Jobs died yesterday. And today the world knows it.