Adobe Releases Photoshop Lightroom 4

It’s finally out! I’ve been beta-testing Lightroom since version 1 and I’ve put version 4 beta to the test by using this exclusively for the editing of the images of an upcoming book and this version has the best workflow yet.

If you already own a previous version of LR, the upgrade is $79, and I strongly recommend it.
The full version costs $149. This is quite a significant drop in price from the previous version where an upgrade was $99 and a full version was $299.

Click here to go to the Adobe LR web page.

Star Trails

I was reading a blog page of someone who was experimenting with taking photos of star trails and gave some advice. I decided to repost it here as other new photographers might find this useful to experiment with.

First of all, trails alone are a good exercise but of little photographic value because identical results can be produced with a software without having to be outside for a long time at night, especially a cold night. So, a very important element you want to add is a foreground or background subject, as in this two images of mine:

http://lucadiana.zenfolio.com/p811160918/he3f7f4e#he3f7f4e

http://lucadiana.zenfolio.com/p711758525/h3c284b45#h3c284b45

The first photo was a hour exposure with the moon rising. The moon gives enough light to expose the sage brush as well as the mountains.
You also want to be careful to exposing for too long with digital cameras, the sensor can over-heat resulting in burned pixels (those red and blue dots you get in an image) and that’s irreversible damage. Also, it’s preferable to use a full frame sensor camera, as well as a low ISO setting (I prefer 100) because less noise is introduced that way: the longer you expose, the more noise you will have. Ultimately, because of this problems, I think in this particular occasion film camera are still better than digital.
For the kayak I used the technique of light-painting, using a flashlight I lit up the boat so that it would expose properly. The white spot on the top right is a cloud moving. This night had a full moon, so I had to kill the shutter after less than 45 minutes so it woldn’t burn the image.

Bahamas: Diving with Sharks

Blue is a recurrent color in my photography, a color I have always felt drawn to, therefore it’s no wonder that I feel a special connection with the ocean. In the past years this has developed into a passion for scuba diving, pushing me to dive in different locations and achieve various certifications, the latest of which being the PADI Rescue Diver. Add to that a loved for big animals and this is how this story began…

“You’re underwater and you see the thing that you were taught your whole life to fear and it doesn’t want to hurt you and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.” These words pronounced by filmmaker Rob Stewart remained impressed in me ever since watching his documentary Sharkwater and I became somewhat of a shark advocate. Then, after reading in the pages of a diving magazine about the opportunity to dive with sharks in the waters of the Bahamas I remember feeling very excited at the idea and started looking for an opportunity to do it.  Two weeks ago the opportunity presented itself under the form of an email from Royal Caribbean with some cruise specials I couldn’t pass on. After (re)packing my scuba gear and a few clothes I was off to a 4-night cruise to Nassau, Coco Cay and Key West.

A couple of times I closed my eyes and saw myself entering the water with sharks swimming all around. It didn’t quite happen that way. I glanced over the surface of the ocean near the boat and not seeing any I thought “maybe the sharks are not here yet, or maybe there aren’t that many” so I took my long stride forward and splashed into the sky-blue waters of the Atlantic. My mask on, I looked down and indeed, there were sharks everywhere. I grinned and waited for our guide to give us the signal to submerge.

We descended to about 40 feet to a sandy floor, the visibility was excellent: sharks everywhere, we stopped counting after 40. They averaged 8 to 12 feet long and 400 to 500 pounds, most of them female, which are bigger than males. We soon realized that we were not part of the food chain and relaxed, getting more and more comfortable with their presence. In fact, watching them swim so effortlessly, more like sliding or gliding, instilled in me a sense of peace. There have been a few times in my life when I have felt at peace with nature, and this was one of them (one day I’ll write about the other times). As if the sharks were just a background to an idyllic scene, we slowly swam down to 70 feet toward the edge of the wall, a place that drops to a depth of 6,500 feet and encountered many other types of marine life: from very large and curious groupers to the biggest eel I’ve ever seen (more like the size of a boa), sea turtle and the ever present lion fish (a beautiful but invasive species that now calls the Caribbean home).
We slowly ascended back to the boat with our air tanks just out of the red zone (some days I really wish I was a fish… or a shark, rather) and got briefed about our second dive: shark feeding.

“Keep you hands tucked in” was the most important warning. When feeding, sharks protect their eyes with a membrane and become therefore blind. Flailing our hands about could confuse them and make them think our hands are bait. “Sharks will be very close to you, inches away. If you are uncomfortable with that distance shake your head and we will move the bait box away.” Turns out that inches away was a bit of an understatement when I got gently slapped in the face by a 10 foot specimen, but none of us shook our heads.

 

Shark Diving in Bahamas

With us spectators sitting in a circle, the feeding began. We were told on a typical day you’d expect about a dozen sharks, today we had nearly 50 around us. When the first bait came up rush hours started with sharks of all sizes (all large sizes) throwing themselves at it, trying to get the bite. The lucky one grabbed the bait stick and didn’t release it, taking it for a stroll before finally dropping it after several minutes. The feeding continued with sharks speeding all around us, trying to take the quickest way to the bait, which often meant bumping us in their quest to get the succulent fish. The most audacious ones even trying to get their noses and mouth inside the bait box while the feeder pushed them away. Between feeding sessions the feeder would grab a shark and rub her hand above the mouth of the animal while this would quietly stay in place enjoying the rub, not unlike a house kitten… a 500 pounds house kitten.

We returned to the boat with very little air left, trying to squeeze as much as possible out of this experience, but with a renewed respect for these beautiful and perfect creatures. This turned out to be one of my most enjoyable dives and not just for the sharks and the other marine life, the blue here has something special.

Sharks Feeding

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Where: New Providence, Bahamas. Stuart Cove’s diving company

How to get there: Major airlines fly to Nassau from many US Cities. Many cruises stop in Nassau for a full day. Stuart Cove will pick you up at your hotel or at the port.

When: Year round, but in the winter months for comfort I recommend wearing a 5mm wetsuit, the water of Bahamas is not always warm.

What to bring: Diver certification card (only certified divers can participate in the shark diving /feeding program); a good level of comfort underwater and around wildlife; underwater camera with a wide angle lens (better if a fisheye), if not, a GoPro2 video camera is a great and much cheaper alternative, for $299 you can take HD 1080p video and 11MP photos up to 10 fps.

What can we do to help sharks?
The most important thing we can do is becoming aware of their importance in the oceans and the risk they face. Here are some useful links:

Sharkwater

Sharkwater’s Facebook Page

Sharks Research Institute

Navigator of the Seas

 

Chili Peppers at the market in Campo de' Fiori

“There’s too much food on this ship” – I couldn’t believe I just said that, talking to a couple in the elevator. Well, the problem is not that there’s too much food, but rather that there’s too much good food and it’s all free and available 24 hours a day. But let’s roll back to a few days earlier…

Navigator of the Sea: the name, although inspiring, means little to anyone who hasn’t been on a cruise and meant little to me up to the moment I boarded this 1,120 foot long ship. My friend was on his sixth Royal Caribbean cruise, this was my first ever. My elevator arrived on deck 5, the Promenade deck and I couldn’t contain a “wow.” One thing is seeing a cruise ship promenade on photos, another to experience it with one’s own eyes. I can consider myself well traveled: two weeks ago I was in Tokyo, Guam and on my way to Palau, Micronesia. Next week I might  be in Hong Kong, Stockholm  or who knows where (I, unexpectedly, ended up in Paris), but I still looked around with a sense of wonder at this architectural prowess. Only four days later the Promenade has become almost like a home, still an amazing place, yet much more familiar. A little bit like Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. to the cast member (that’s how Disney calls its employees, a title I carried for five years) who has worked there for years. I’ll cross the Promenade waving to a new friend, stopping to engage in conversation with another one on my way to the gym, the running track, the climbing wall, the Schooner piano bar or just wander around to see what’s going on.

Trevi’s Fountain at night

The arrival to Civitavecchia harbor was uneventful, a short train ride on one of the new Eurostar from Rome’s main station Termini. The four days preceding the cruise were just the opposite. My friend and his family had rented an apartment in one of Rome’s loveliest square, Campo de’ Fiori. This proved to be an excellent choice, not just because this came to be cheaper than getting a hotel room but also because the location was hard to beat. Situated in the heart of Rome, a five minutes’ walk from Piazza Navona and ten to fifteen minutes from the Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Spagna, The Vittoriano, Trastevere and its charming restaurants and so much more. The fully furnished and cozy apartment offered a lot in terms of convenience and comfort, therefore our days in Rome, with myself playing tour guide to my American friends, were a non-stopping succession of events which included, of course, tours of monuments and sampling of the local cuisine, with several visits to my favorite artisanal ice cream shop “Gelato per Passione” owned and managed by the lovely Sonia (the Nutella gelato is to die for). We even managed to squeeze a trip to the Medieval town of San Gimignano.

Neptune in Piazza Navona

Rome being what it is, the photographic opportunities abounded. The challenge remained finding that original angle to give our photographs a touch of originality to distinguishes them from photos taken by millions of other tourists every year. One can find originality in a fisheye shot taken from the Gianicolo, the famous hill in Trastevere or in a long exposure at night of Trevi’s Fountain. It’s certainly fun to walk the old city, camera in hand, exploring its little streets and many fountains. My lens of choice is my Canon 24-105L, great for most occasions. I would also suggest packing a fisheye and a super wide (14mm or 16mm) and a light, discrete tripod. I do fine with my Gorillapod, although for long exposures you’ll want something bigger and sturdier.

Jordan & Petra – Part 2

Camels in front of the Treasury,PetraMy legs were aching as I climbed up the steep path leading to the Sacrifice Place, high above Petra. The morning had started early and being one of the very first people in I enjoyed the ancient city nearly alone. The tourists would flock a few hours later, but for now it was me, my new hiking friend from England (a young and active girl I had just met in the Siq), a few camels, a herd of goats and just a handful of local herders and trinket sellers. After poking our heads inside a few tombs, climbing a tortuous path through narrow passages and stopping at the edge of a cliff where we could take a photo with our feet dangling over nothing for a few hundred meters down we arrived to the summit. I took a deep breath of the fresh morning air and inhaled the dry beauty of the harsh landscape. High on the hills, with an horizon that seemed to be so far away, surrounded by desert and red rocks we sat down on the edge of another cliff and let our eyes and skin absorb this rugged beauty. Down below we could see goats and the occasional camel roaming around, locals starting to set up their selling tents and the sun growing brighter and harsher by the minute. I wasn’t feeling in the mood for vast landscape photography, somehow I couldn’t find that exciting framing point for a good wide-angle. I could see the beauty with my eyes but I could not see it in the viewfinder. I supposed this is one type of beauty that has to be lived in person. I limited myself to taking a few wide unexciting shots and concentrated more on details like the stripes on the rocks, which I thought were beautiful. The lines and gentle curves and swirls of red to white tones made the perfect subject for texture photography and my excitement grew the more photos I took. I loved the warm tones of the rock but in my mind I could also picture this in B&W, and that’s a bonus when a photo works well in color as well as monochrome.
As we took a different trail, the way down was just as long as the way up, if not longer. A young guy crossed our path with his heard and looking at my hiking companion, or more like a open mouth stare (she is beautiful, indeed, and she must look extremely exotic to the Middle-Easterners), first told me I was a lucky guy (the ever present assumption that a man and a woman traveling together must be married) and then asked me how many camels I would trade her for. Images of Lawrence of Arabia danced in my mind, seeing myself going back home with two brand new camels, but I politely declined the offer and laughed with my new friend when I told her what had just happened. We both wondered if he meant it or if he was mocking us. Either way, it was a fun moment. Minutes later we arrived to the main road, which was like a large avenue dotted with marble columns and bid our farewells.

Pattern in the rocksMain Road in Ancient Petra

There was so much to see, but I didn’t rush. The point of being here was not seeing as much as possible, the many long and winding canyons which form Petra, with their myriads of  tombs and houses; the scenic plateaus and sheer cliffs cannot be seen in two days, and that’s all the time I had. Instead, I decided to see the highlights of the place and just enjoy being there while stopping often to take what turned out to be several hundred photos.
A boy offered to take me up to the Monastery on his mule, the usual selling point being that the trail is steep and long. “Too far, sir, you’ll  have to walk two hours” he said. I had to decline the offer several time, a mule ride sounded like fun but I came here to hike, and I’m a fast hiker, and if long hikes in the Tetons don’t scare me, I don’t see why those in Petra should. So I started the climb and one quick step in front of another I made it to the top, exactly 29 minutes later. The view of the majestic Monastery carved into the stone opened up in front of me just as imposing as the Treasury. I spend a bit of time taking photos from many angles then continue my hike a little further toward the cliff at the end of the mountain. Here, surrounded by sharp rocks, with my feet dangling a mile above the ground I looked in the distance, toward Israel. Nobody was around and I savored the hazy view with the silence only broken by a gentle wind. I sat there for a while, doing absolutely nothing but look toward the horizon and it felt good to be once again with nature, on top of the world, like when I was in Machu Picchu

The Monastery

I ran down the path just for the fun of it regardless of the hot Middle Eastern sun and it felt good and I felt free. My friend and the mule were at the bottom of the path and we exchanged a few pleasantries before I hiked back toward the Treasury and the half mile long siq.
Leaving Petra behind wasn’t easy and once again I left a place with the promise that I would be back. With my head against the window of the bus that would take me back to Amman I closed my eyes and saw myself on the cliff by the Monastery. My own top of the world.
I didn’t sleep but the hours on the bus went by quickly as I stared at the desert. Arriving in Amman with the dark I decided I didn’t want to waste my last night inside so I ventured through the market stalls of the old city and sampled local food. $4 got me a nice dish with lamb in a eatery that rarely sees western tourists and my only regret was not being able to communicate with the locals to at least let them know how much I enjoyed their country.
I woke up early and took a taxi to the bus station to yet another bus, this time to King Hussein bridge and the border with Israel. A few years ago I had the chance and honor to meet King Abdullah II and he stroke me for his casual and pleasant manners. It’s easy to see why he’s loved so much by his people.
The bus slowed down and Israel’s flag came to view… but that’s another story. 

Alaska: Denali National Park

In a well rehearsed goodbye, Mt. McKinley shows its majestic body above the clouds and begs me to come back. I smile at it from my airplane seat and I feel a mix of excitement and sadness as the mountain view recedes from my eyes. My visit to Alaska was short, barely 3 days but it was intense, both on the amount of miles I covered as well as the number of wildlife I’ve seen. The experience quite unique: my first wolves sighting, grazing bull moose, grizzly cubs wrestling, rivers running toward an infinite landscape… Denali National Park conquered my heart. A park that has nothing of the fast paced, bumper-to-bumper, Yellowstone rush hours, a park that was created for nature to preserve itself rather than to become an overpopulated vacation destination. I got a taste of this immense wilderness and I’m addicted. In the next few months I know I’ll be busy planning a return, a comeback in grandeur where I’ll be able to see more, to experience more and to lose myself in a land beyond time; me and my camera. Take only pictures, leave only footprints behind.

Denali truly is a haven for a landscape, as well as a wildlife photographer. In just a day I saw more wildlife than what I’d see in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in a year. By mid-afternoon yesterday I watched a large number of caribou walking lazily across a valley, two rams and many sheep, two wolves, ten grizzlies, four bull moose, two golden eagles and so much more.
The mountains were hidden by what felt like perennial clouds and the rain was nearly incessant, but that made for richer greens and allowed me to take some spectacular landscape images. If you come here for a limited time, as I did, take a green bus to Wonder Lake and if you’re lucky enough your driver will give you plenty details about the place and will be capable of spotting wildlife before anyone else sees it, mine did. The bus stops whenever somebody shouts “Stop! I saw something!” and that increases the amount of time it takes to get to destination, but remember: it’s about the travel itself. With so many alert eyes on board it won’t be long before you get your chance to come home with the photograph of a bull moose or grizzly you always wanted to take. My personal recommendation is to seat on the driver’s side of the bus, heading west, as you’ll be directly facing a more dramatic landscape as well as areas where the animals are more likely to be. This was just an explorative trip for me, already knowing that I would’ve wanted to come back, and it gave me ideas of what to do next time I visit Denali; how to manage my time in the park; what to do and see and most importantly what to bring. My gear of choice this time was: my Canon 7D (I left the 5D Mark II at home as I wanted the extra reach of the 7D but didn’t want t be bothered by the weight of two bodies), Canon EF-S 10-22mm for those special landscape shots, Canon EF-100-400mm L IS, Canon EF-24-105 L IS. These two ended up being the most used lenses, particularly the 100-400 which made more than one person jealous. Sure, I was wishing I had the new Canon 800mm, but how many people can hand-hold that lens for more than 10 seconds without getting tired? (Without even considering the nearly-prohibitive price of that lens ).Also, remember that you’re on a bus for a long time, therefore you’ll have vibrations and bumps and the 100-400 is a lot easier to handle, hiking with the 800mm might not be wise. Moreover, with the 7D crop factor it becomes an actual 160-640mm lens. When the bus stops because of nearby wildlife you cannot get off as park regulations forbids that, but you can get off the bus at any other time and hike from there until you’re ready to jump back on-board, which could be an hour or a week later, according to your taste and preparation
The other accessory that has become essential to me is my Cotton Carrier, no more hiking getting bruises on my neck or back pain (read a review here). I also brought a circular warming polarizer but I never got a chance to use it. With so many wildflowers in July it’s also a good idea to bring a macro if you enjoy capturing the details of plants and flowers.