Oh My God Road

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Little trip to Central City and then on to Idaho Springs via the Oh My God Road (actual name: Virginia Canyon Road). It’s a nice drive on a good dirt road past numerous old mines and several semi-abandoned small settlements.

Istanbul with the Sony RX100m2

In addition to occasional vacations where photography and / or hiking are the main goal I travel – a lot – for work. Oftentimes, my Canon 5DmkIII gets left home alone. The difficulty and stress of travel is a monotonically increasing function of the amount of stuff you cart around, and I just don’t want to bother with the weight of my DSLR kit if I’m only going to have a few hours of free time in a location. Thinking this way though loses you photographic possibilities, and there have been plenty of images I’ve snapped with my iPhone that could have been nice photos with a better camera. So I’ve been thinking for a while about supplementing my existing gear with a camera that’s lighter and more likely to be with me when I travel.

The occasion of a trip to Istanbul to lecture on planet formation brought these thoughts to a head. I imagined – not entirely accurately as it turned out – that Istanbul would be a busy and somewhat chaotic city where having a camera smaller than a DSLR would not only be lighter, but also advantageous in terms of being more discreet. I consider the ability to shoot raw a must, and since the whole point was to get a camera substantially more portable than a DSLR the ability to fit it into a pocket was a major plus. The Sony RX100m2 fit the bill on both counts, and not without doubts I headed to Turkey with a brand new compact as my sole camera…

Stitched Panorama

How did it work out? In one word: great. The famous historic sights of Istanbul – Hagia Sophia (above), the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Galata Bridge, and the rest – are actually much more “European” than I imagined, and you wouldn’t be out of place shooting street scenes there with a full DSLR setup. That said, a light and pocketable camera feels much better at the end of a day of sightseeing than a DSLR, and – with just a couple of caveats – I don’t feel I sacrificed many photographic possibilities with the baby Sony as compared to my usual Canon. Most importantly, I felt more comfortable shooting on the street with what appeared to be a “snapshot” camera rather than a pro-looking outfit.

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What worked and what didn’t? In general, I was fully satisfied with the basic image quality and usability of the Sony:

  • Image quality – since the Sony was the only camera I had, I haven’t tried (yet) any head to head comparisons with the 5DmkIII. Informally though, the files look quite fine at 100% in Lightroom, and there’s reasonable latitude to bring up the shadows or recover highlights. I took some care to avoid going beyond ISO 800 or 1600, but that was enough for hand held daylight interiors of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
  • Usability – generally excellent. The camera arrived a couple of days before I left for the trip, and I spent maybe an hour with the manual configuring the settings to my liking. In use, the autofocus was fast and accurate, and the menus easy to navigate. It takes a couple more steps to adjust ISO than I’d like (with my setup), but that’s a minor gripe that could be fixed if you used the lens dial for ISO rather than aperture or some other function.
  • Overall feel – also excellent. The camera is small, but solid – “dense” is the word that comes to mind.

Of course you don’t get all this good stuff without having to make some compromises too. As a longtime SLR and DSLR user, there were a bunch of things I missed:

  • No viewfinder! In the abstract I’m pleased there’s no viewfinder, because small size and weight were the things I wanted most in my second camera. That said, it takes some getting used to. I mis-framed a bunch of shots, and although some of those were just due to inexperience I think it’s genuinely more difficult to compose on the screen than in the viewfinder under daylight conditions.
  • Electronic zoom. It doesn’t work well if you’re used to a mechanically coupled zoom lens. You want to zoom in just a little, and you overshoot. Go back, and again you miss. There’s an option to change the zoom from (pseudo) continuous to a finite set of fixed focal lengths, and I think I’ll end up doing that – better to have definite constraints rather than imprecise freedom to set the focal length.
  • Battery life. It’s half a day in real life. Not bad, but not what you get with a DSLR.
  • 28mm at the wide end. I wish it was 24mm, and I’d willingly sacrifice some of the telephoto reach to go wider. I did a lot of stitching.

sunset

Everyone’s photographic needs are different, but I see a clear place for a high performance (and relatively large sensor) compact alongside a DSLR in my camera arsenal going forward. It seems clear to me that we’re still at least a generation or two from reaching the point of diminishing returns in the performance of full-frame DSLRs. On our summer trip, I got to compare images shot with my 5DmkIII with those my brother took using a Nikon D800e, using comparable “high end consumer grade” 70-200mm f/4 lenses. The Nikon gave very obviously higher resolution images, even with hand held shots taken with relatively inexpensive glass and no special attention to shooting at optimal apertures. With the very best lenses that promise near diffraction limited performance – perhaps a Canon 300mm f/2.8 or the forthcoming Zeiss 55mm distagon – I envisage in the not too distant future shooting reference images (and probably 4k video) that take advantage of 50 or even 100MP sensors. Clearly though that’s overkill for many many shooting situations. If I go hiking on a bright sunny day with harsh lighting, the chances of capturing an image that I’ll want to print at 30×20 inches are close to zero. A compact camera that’s “good enough” is probably going to be the right tool – for me – for such situations, and in the current generation the Sony RX100m2 does the job very creditably.

Dawn to dusk at Mount Rainier

One of my goals for this summer’s vacation with my brother was to get out and about in the wilderness for photography at dawn and dusk. We hadn’t managed many sunrises or sunsets for several years, in part due to wariness about venturing into prime Alaskan or Yukon grizzly habitat at night, and in part because a good night’s sleep is hard to pass up after a long day’s hiking! With no grizzlies in Mount Rainier National Park, though, we managed to overcome laziness for one spectacular dawn on the mountain, here photographed from the roadside along Highway 410 near the Sunrise entrance. Some high clouds would have made this image better, but just the dawn and the softer light on the river were well worth getting up for.

Sunrise, Mt Rainier

At the other end of the day, this image is a stacked composite of frames taken after dark at Myrtle Falls, a short walk away from Paradise on the south side of Rainier. You need faith with this sort of effort as it rapidly gets too dark to see anything, but the final image is quite close to the one I’d visualized. With this sort of composite you have enormous “artistic” freedom to adjust the balance between the sky, the stars, and the foreground, and I’m still agonizing over which of several version I prefer! The frames were shot at 30s, f/8, ISO 800, so the noise is not too obtrusive and a large print ought to be possible…

Star trails, Mt Rainier

As it turned out, shooting the final frame of the stack was only the start of the evening’s excitement. With that finished, I set up for a shot of my brother walking along (and illuminating) the trail beneath Rainier against an ultra-deep exposure of the moonless sky. We were ready to go, when we spotted the glint of eye shine in the bushes off to the right. A bit of discussion at slightly louder than normal volume ensued, and I donned my own headlamp. The eyes vanished, and then reappeared, quite a bit closer! And closer. At this point it seemed opportune to retreat, talking loudly and with frequent glances over our shoulders…

What spooked us? On reflection, probably a deer, as we’d gotten some cute pictures of some very tame deer at the same spot just before sunset. Once you start thinking bear or mountain lion, though, it’s time to call it a day on the photography in my book!

Bear viewing at Anan Creek

A couple of years back my brother and I, more or less on a whim, decided to spend a few days visiting Stewart on the BC / Alaska border to see what the bear viewing was like at Fish Creek. We didn’t have much idea what to expect, but it turned out to be way more interesting than we could have imagined! Thus began a mild obsession with bears, which last year saw us visit Pack Creek near Juneau, and this year saw us snag lottery permits for Anan Creek on 9th August.

The best way to visit Anan Creek, IMO, is to stay at the Forest Service cabin at the site. The web booking is first come, first served, and you need good luck as it’s understandably popular. We failed, and instead visited on a day trip from Wrangell. We flew with Sunrise Aviation – the only air charter option in Wrangell (though boat trips are also possible) – who were great. I still find the whole idea of hiring a float plane to get places rather cool!

Black bear in cave at Anan Creek

Once at the creek, the bear viewing was first rate. It’s mostly black bears (though we saw a couple of browns), and apart from one lull around mid-day of maybe an hour there were bears out fishing throughout the time we were at the site. The far side of the creek opposite the viewing area is a jumble of mossy rocks and caves, and it’s pretty easy to get the standard Anan shots of bears peering out of dark crevices and fishing below the waterfall. The cub peering out of the cave above was my favorite shot. Lens-wise, 300mm on full frame works pretty well. I had a 1.4 teleconverter but didn’t use it at all; my brother used a 2x for a few shots but also mostly shot with a bare 300mm. You can sign up for half hour stints in a hide down at the water level, and there 200mm is plenty.

Brown bear at Anan Creek

Overall it was a great day of bear viewing, and of the places I’ve been to the easiest to take good standard pics of bears fishing. I’m not sure what sort of unique images you could hope for there, though I guess with enough time you might get lucky and catch some interesting interactions between bears. Compared to Pack Creek, the photography was easier at Anan but it didn’t feel quite as wild and remote a setting – at Anan Creek there are a lot of visitors coming and going on brief commercial tours that you don’t get at Pack Creek.

If you’re interested in visiting, here’s the link to the Anan Creek info from the Forest Service.

Night at the Boulder Flatirons

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I’ve noticed previously that it never gets truly dark at the Boulder Flatirons. Even on a moonless night, light from the city illuminates the rock and any clouds above. Tonight there were light patchy clouds drifting south, which tempted me to try another stacked exposure but this time with the added element of the clouds. I think this might have been better if the cloud had been low enough to roll over Green Mountain (in which case I’d have gone for a tighter shot), but happy with the result.

Technical details: 20 x 30s exposures, 18mm, f/3.5 at ISO 400, stacked with StarStax.

Merseyside

Quick trip over to West Kirby in the Wirral yesterday. An oddity here is that the tide goes out a long way, and there are three islands (one big enough to have houses) that you can walk out to at low tide. Lots of people do. Of course there are plenty of tide pools, and I had in my mind an image similar to this one of refelctions in Death Valley. Too much wind (and cloud) meant there weren’t any reflections, however, and my favorite image was instead a wide angle shot processed for a slightly dreamy look:

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Meanwhile the Mann Island development on the Liverpool waterfront continues to provide amusement. With some low clouds and light pollution it takes on a Bladerunner-like look:

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Looking for a new angle…

Just back from a long weekend in Pisa. It was my first visit to the city, but of course I had a pretty good (!) idea what to expect. The central area – the Piazza dei Miracoli – was more beautiful than I expected, and the Leaning Tower is, well, remarkably non-perpendicular. As ever at such a place, it’s a fun but basically hopeless challenge to come up with a new photographic angle. Failing that, I followed the usual advice: at an iconic locale, you only need to hint at where you are. My best pic, I think, was this piece of whimsy… tourists posing for the humorous photo of holding up the tower.

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Dada did better. With a small sensor Nikon compact low in the grass, she came up with this image than may not be original but was at least new to me!

(I tried to replicate this with a DSLR but it can’t be done… it really only works with a small camera.)

Photography to one side, Pisa and the nearby towns (Siena and Lucca) were simply wonderful. A great weekend.

Southern Italy

A few days of vacation in Southern Italy, starting from Naples then on to the Amalfi Coast (beautiful, but very busy even in June!) and the region south of Taranto in Puglia. Quite an abundance of photo opportunities here: beautiful coastlines, historic cities (Lecce and especially Matera), and general “southern Italy” images.

StarStaX software

Shooting star trail photos on film required a generous measure of luck (or experience) to judge whether the reciprocity failure inherent in a lengthy exposure would give a pleasing result. Digital capture makes the process apparently much simpler – you simply shoot a large number of almost consecutive exposures and stack them after the fact to mimic the effect of a long single exposure. The problem is how to treat the foreground. For the sky, “stacking” just means taking the maximum value at each pixel across the sequence of images. If its truly dark, applying the same algorithm to the whole frame will generally give only a silhouette for the foreground, since even at high ISO 20 or 30 seconds won’t be enough. So, instead, you might (a) start the sequence when there’s still a little light in the sky and stack for the maxima (in which case frame #1 will give the whole image, with the rest just contributing the trails), or (b) additively stack the frames to give the equivalent of a super-long exposure without reciprocity failure. In either case, there’s no such thing as a “real” image and it’s an aesthetic decision how bright the foreground is relative to the sky.

Enough theory, here’s my first attempt… looking north toward the Flatirons and Boulder from the Flatirons Vista trail south of town:

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To make this image, I stacked 150 20s exposures (ISO 3200, f/5.6, about 135mm) starting about an hour after sunset. My 5D Mk3 didn’t seem to like shooting at 21s intervals (perhaps overhead with high ISO noise reduction?) so the intervals were 22s and as a result there are some gaps evident in the full resolution file. The images were then stacked using StarStax (very simple, free, and does what it says on the box).

On the road to Dinosaur

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A weekend in Steamboat Springs and the north-western corner of Colorado. Didn’t have time to do any landscape photography in Dinosaur National Monument, but Dinosaur Quarry – where fossilized bones have been left exposed in the rock of an ancient stream bed – is well worth seeing. Memo to myself: there are a lot of aspens around Steamboat… worth coming back in the Fall!