Again in Seoul

Gwanghwamun

My favorite time to write is while on public transportation, be it on an airplane or a train. Here I am, sitting on a plane from Detroit to Salt Lake City on my way home from a quick getaway to Seoul, South Korea. And a quick getaway it sure was. I left Montana on Tuesday morning and returning today, which is Friday. That gave me a full day in Seoul. Sure, that’s not much to see the city but the whole purpose of this trip was a chance to fly the upper cabin of the Delta Boeing 747 one more time before it retires at the end of the year (United will be retiring theirs as well soon). And I also had been to Seoul before (see my previous blog post: A Stroll in Seoul), so one could say this is a continuation of my previous trip as I focused on sights that were new to me. Seoul is a fascinating and vibrant city where people are quick to smile and a dollar goes  long way (it’s still only about $4 for a one way train ticket from Incheon airport to the city and a 2 liter bottle of water will cost you less than a dollar). I confess that I didn’t go out seeking photograph opportunity on this trip, I was just happy to be there. Well, it’s not that photographic opportunities do not abound, it’s more like the light was just not the best. A sunny day will give you strong light with harsh shadows and a sunny day is what I go (but who am I to complain), so perhaps once home, as I start cataloging these new photos, I will work on some black and whites as that gives more justice to harsh lighting conditions.

I like to walk and this trip was no different than many others where I consumed the bottom of my shoes. I arrived on Wednesday night after a 13 hours flight from Detroit (and 2 other flights before that) and after dropping my small backpack at the hostel I booked by Hongik University for a whopping $16/night (breakfast included), on a direct train line from the airport, I went to explore the neighborhood and find something to eat. I really like that area, Hongik University has a fun, multicultural, night life and it’s brim with cheap restaurants, coffee shops and beer houses. I will most likely stay there again.

Namdaemun Market

The next morning I took the subway to Namdaemun Market. One could find all sort of things here, it reminded me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. There’s an above ground section, that spans across a large area and multiple small alleys, as well an underground claustrophobic as well as rich of all sort of merchandise section. I truly enjoyed both as I walked around taking pictures and GoPro video while being greeted by the smiles of many merchants.
I wasn’t there to buy stuff (although there’s so much I would buy) but I love this city, and I think they could tell.

Library and City Hall

In one of the small alleys I found several restaurants displaying a variety of locals dishes and tantalizing smells. Letting a gracious lady lure me inside one of them I try a typical Korean dish which was still new to me:  Bibimbap (literally: Mixed rice. It’s served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables chili pepper paste and soy sauce). I loved every bite, as it contained several flavors that perfectly married each other. I liked it so much that on my flight from Incheon to Detroit I had it again as it was one of the meal options.

Satisfied with my lunch choice I, once again, took the road to walk toward the City Hall. This is a gorgeous modern glass building that sits just across the Deoksugung temple area which I had visited on my previous trip (see past blog post: A Stroll in Seoul). I would recommend spending time in this area to anyone interested in travel and architectural photography. The harmony of the lines in those buildings just make for some great shots. Walking down this large avenue I arrived at my destination, the Gwanghwamun Gate and temple complex. I shared some of the sights with a young woman from Holland (originally from Syria) whose name is Arua, if memory serves me correctly. As we took each other’s pictures we talked a bit about world events. Of course we touched a bit on the topic of Syria, and she made me realize how hard it is for people who only have the Syrian passport to travel anywhere as most countries will not accept that passport for entry. It is sad that a whole people can be discriminated based on their nationality. I have not met a whole lot of Syrians but those I met where beautiful people with a quick smile, a sense of humor and a will to share what they have with other cultures. I hope they will find peace soon.

Hongik University area at night

After another walk to the subway station I took a train to the National Museum of Korea. Those who are museum lovers will find thousands of artifacts to entertain them for the whole day; those who are not will still rejoice from the gorgeous setting and building, the many collections inside that are worth at least a quick browsing, and the fact that admission is free.

After this I went back to Hongik University area to relax and grab some dinner. The next morning I had a 6am alarm clock to get me to the airport in time for my 10am flight.

Seoul has so much more to offer, but I’m truly intrigued by the beautiful sights advertised in posters around the subway stations. With mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, as well as gorgeous foliage colors, it seems that South Korea will be calling my name sooner rather than later.

City view from the National Museum of Korea
Bibimbap

 

 

(Click on images to see a larger version in a new tab)

 

 

 

South East Asia Part 1: Vietnam

hkg1
Hong Kong by night

If there is one place capable of capturing the collective imagination with visions of fabled treasures, unexplored jungle, ancient rituals and mysterious cultures the Angkor temple complex is certainly it. It is the lifetime dream of the traveling photographer, on par with Easter Island and Machu Picchu.

Flying over the jungle for a while with views of lakes and river and lush landscape, I stretch my neck left and right trying to catch a glimpse of Angkor Wat but our route does not take us in its proximity. The landing at Siem Reap airport is smooth and right on time. While our Cambodia Angkor Air Airbus taxis to the terminal my excitement grows, as images of stone faces and jungle covered ruins plays in my mind.
I have been traveling with my friend Michelle for a while now, and we have recently met some other friends from Wyoming down in Sihanoukville (where we just flew from). Together we hop on the Tuk Tuk that is waiting outside of the terminal to take us to our guesthouse: the Seven Candles.
I want to spend a few words on this place in case you, dear reader, end up in Siem Reap a day or another. Seven Candles (http://www.sevencandlesguesthouse.com/) is more than a guesthouse, it’s a school for rural children and part of the profits go to the education of these children. Please take a moment to read about the foundation: http://www.sevencandlesguesthouse.com/#!our-foundation.
Lori Carlson, a transplant from Austin, Texas manages the guesthouse. She has a quick smile and many helpful tips, which contributed to making our stay more enjoyable,

Way up to the Big BuddhaOur trip began in Tokyo, with a 26 hours stopover to show my friend Michelle around the city since this was her first time, and continued to Hong Kong were three days were just enough for a visit to the Po Lin monastery, a few museums, catch up with old friends and have dinner at my favorite Nepalese restaurant. From there we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (the old Saigon) in Vietnam for a quick tour of the city. We arrived at midnight and a short taxi ride took us to the hotel in the city center. Asian hospitality never ceases to amaze me: not only was the location of our hotel convenient, but our room was large, modern, had a huge bathroom window overlooking the city and the hotel had a beautiful rooftop restaurant/bar where we could enjoy a delightful meal and drinks for just a few dollars. The staff was, of course, very friendly and helpful too.
The following morning’s rain did not stop us from enjoying the city. We took a rickshaw to visit the local market (similar to a bazaar) which was overfilled with trinkets and souvenirs that made me wish I had any room in my small backpack, the only luggage I dragged. When the rain finally stopped and a bit of sun came out, we walked to the War Remnants Museum. The visit was somber, the museum was full of people but hardly any word was spoken, as the many photographs on the wall grabbed everyone’s attention. I had a sense of déjà vu, projecting myself in the Atom bomb museum I had visited in Hiroshima years before. It’s incredible to see the kind of atrocity people are willing to commit in the name of some temporary political ideology, but it’s good that we have places like this that can remind us of the past and push us to be better people to ourselves and those around us. Taking photographs is allowed in most parts of the museum, but I limited myself to a few shots of machinery in the front yard.hkg3

The good mood returned in the evening with a walk in the business district, watching and avoiding the movement of thousands of scooters, which was quite an adventure in itself. If I were asked what are the three most difficult things I have done in my life, I would say that crossing a street in Vietnam was definitely one of them. We concluded the evening with a visit of the Saigon Skydeck. Located on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, at a height of 178 meters, we enjoyed a night view of the city and its myriad of lights from above. A lengthy walk home and a pleasant dinner on the roof was all that was left for the day, the following morning was going to be spent for the most part on a bus to the capital of Cambodia: Phnom Penh.

Ho Chi Minh City from the rooftop restaurant

Last Minute Trip to Argentina: Part 1

 

Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires
Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires

As I flip through the pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Argentina I feel an excitement growing like I haven’t felt it in a long time. In the past few years I have traveled near and far (mostly far). Just a week ago I was strolling along the roads of Munich; before then I was in Italy just in time to witness the birth of my first nephew;  two months ago I had the opportunity to visit my old college roommate in his beautiful hometown: Stockholm. So far this year I’ve been to five new countries and about to make the sixth as well as returning to several others. Every place I see is special in its own way: be it the orange sands of Wadi Rum, an ancient cemetery in Japan where spirits seem to breathe on the back of your neck, or the warm azure waters of Palau in Micronesia. Every place has given me unique memories and wonderful emotions (I couldn’t stop my eyes from getting moist while watching the sun breaking through the clouds from below while I was standing at the top of the Haleakala Mountain in Mau; or falling into a revered silence as the clouds broke up to reveal the ancient Machu Picchu before me) but all this traveling has taken its toll, it has taken a little bit of the magic of the unknown away. It is a bit like working in a movie set after another (which I have done): you will never watch a movie the same way. You will still enjoy it, but it will be different. I’ve gone from place to place making my wishes come true, loving it, but at the same time feeling like something was missing.

Buenos Aires is a bright and lively city
Buenos Aires is a bright and lively city

This time is different, though. I feel the excitement building up and I can’t wait to be at destination. This trip was not planned; maybe that’s what makes it so different and appealing. I sat in front of my computer yesterday, on my birthday, working on some photos, when out of nowhere I thought of Argentina. I quickly typed “weather in Ushuaia” on my browser but the results were less than encouraging: I would have left a cold place for another, not in the mood for that. I switched the search to “weather in Bariloche” and the results were much better: sunny with 27C/80F.

I type this half-way between Denver and Atlanta; tonight I will be on a flight to Buenos Aires where I will meet up with some friends flying out of Houston. I’m getting shivers from this, I already know, amazing adventure that is about to start.

How Else Would You Celebrate Your Arrival in Buenos Aires?
How Else Would You Celebrate Your Arrival in Buenos Aires?

Bariloche, gateway to Alta Patagonia and home of some of South America’s most scenic National Parks is my mother’s dream place. This trip is dedicated to you, mom. Thank you for giving me the positive energy to make it happen and also thanks for never stopping guiding me: with your curiosity, your intelligence, your creativity and your compassion.

The Photographer’s Blues

You have been taking photos enthusiastically for months, with subjects ranging from landscape to macro to long exposures and you have participated, or at least been lurking, in many online forums but all of a sudden you just don’t feel it anymore, you want to go out and take photos but can’t bring yourself to do it. You’ve just been diagnosed with a common case of the Photographer’s Blues. It happened to me last year; after years of being driven to search a variety of light conditions, new locations, new angles on old locations, being an active member of the photographic community and devouring books and magazines, I bumped into a wall. The motivation to grab my camera was completely gone and I worried if it would ever come back. As months passed and a large pile of unread photography magazines piled up on my coffee table I occasionally would look at my non-growing collection of photos in my hard drive. Something had to be done, I wasn’t going to let this “photographic depression” take over and put an end to what had been a passion since the age of six. My first step was creating a blog, if grabbing my Canons wasn’t the highest of my priorities, writing was still something I considered enjoyable and personalizing a pre-existing interface for my new WordPress blog was actually a fun task. Some of you might not be too big on writing, but a blog doesn’t need to be a collection of long essays, you can post quick thoughts or just images with a caption. At first it might be just for you and your family or close friends but as you grow a following, you will find more inspiration, motivation as well as materials since many will offer their ideas. After all, this article would have probably never been written had it not been for a fellow blogger’s complaint that she did not enjoy taking photos anymore. Besides a blog, and as a good complement to it, if you haven’t done so already, starting a website gives you exposure (no pun intended) as well as providing another outlet to your creativity. Even if you’re not computer savvy at all, starting a website today is easier than ever. Internet Providers like 1and1 or Zenfolio (check my website under Discount Offers for details) allow you to register your own domain name for a small fee and give you a selection of tools, as well as templates, to start a website in minutes. You can create pages of any kind as well as professionally looking galleries. If you have a larger budget and some HTML and CSS programming knowledge or are willing to learn them, a software like Adobe Dreamweaver will really allow you to have total control and flexibility over your creation.

Photographers are everywhere, and most of them are social people looking to learn new things or willing to share what they know. So, why not get in touch with other photographers in your community and start a club or a weekly meeting/photoshoot. Not only that’s a great way to make new friends, but everyone wins in terms of knowledge and portfolio images as well as finding a great enthusiasm booster. Starting something like that can be easily achieved with just a post on Craigslist. I was a very active member of the online community of a well known photo magazine, but ended up abandoning it because of the excessive spam (eventually everyone left). It was great times, we had weekly assignments, photo critiques and everyone had something to share. It always saddened me how the magazine management let something that great just die. Recently I created discussion forums on my own blog and I’m hoping to capture the same environment of cooperation that we had then, minus the spam. Search “create online forums” on Google and you will find enough tools to make your own. Don’t feel up to the task? Make yourself a promise to become involved in a discussion forum with at least two or three posts a week. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, those who have the answers are usually more than happy to share; we all like the feeling that comes from having helped someone.

If you can afford it, take a photography seminar or in-the-field workshop. You’ll learn from a pro and be taken to places you probably didn’t even know; and chances are you will learn functions of your camera that you didn’t even know existed or that seemed too esoteric.

I left the most exciting one for last: travel!

Get in your car, get on a plane, get on a cruise ship… just go somewhere new. I’m what you could call a professional traveler. To me traveling is a way of life. I like to see new places, explore new foods, meet new people. I can guarantee you that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ve flown to Europe for as little as $400 round trip from Los Angeles. My two weeks in Peru (and who doesn’t want to photograph Machu Picchu?) came to a total of less than $1,000 (flight included from Salt Lake City). A 4 nights cruise to Bahamas was $262 (gratuities included as well). All it takes is a bit of planning and some good price shopping skills. Go to new places and you will come home with a new collection of photos that you will be excited to share with friends and other photographers.

And if you really don’t or can’t get away from home, find the nearest forest near you and photograph trees. Get into the woods with a wide angle lens and explore its possibilities. Try to make those trees look as imposing as you can. You will like the results.

I’m writing this while sitting on the steps of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts. I hope my ideas make you want to grab your camera. I’ll end this article here as my right index is itching once again to press the shutter.

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.

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.

Hawaii: Underwater Adventures

This week I’m in Hawaii spending some time underwater and working on some new SCUBA certifications. I just earned my Nitrox rating as well as my Advanced Open Water certification, for which I picked these five specialties: Deep Dive, Underwater Navigation, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Wreck Diving and, why not, Underwater Photography. All the dives were boat dives booked through Aaron’s Dive Shop, located in the town of Kailua on Oahu. I have been using Aaron’s services for all of my dives ever since I earned my Open Water PADI certification because of the knowledge and friendliness of the staff, as well as the quality of their customer service. My Enriched Air Nitrox course took place entirely in Aaron’s classroom, located above the shop, and consisted on going through the knowledge review of the course book and spend a great deal of time doing exercises to calculate the body exposure to nitrogen, oxygen, limits, etc. The course ends with a comprehensive written exam, which is submitted to PADI before a Nitrox card with photo is issued. Without that card no diving operation will provide enriched air.
The first actual dive took place the following morning with the boat leaving around 7:30 to visit a few wrecks. This time I was diving for the first time with 32% and 36% oxygen blend (normail air contains 21% oxygen), I didn’t feel any difference. As I needed to focused with the tasks required for my Advanced Open Water certification I did not bring my camera, something that didn’t take me long to regret. The first dive of the day was down to a wreck, which I had visited before, but still fascinating. I think wrecks are my favorite thing to dive and it will not be long before I go for my full Wreck Diving certification, a more in-depth (no pun intended) course that goes into the technical ways to explore and map a wreck while remaining safe. The second dive was my Navigation dive and, with the aid of a compass, I was instructed on how to find my way underwater.
The next morning, same time, two more canisters of Enriched Air were ready for me on the boat. While the other divers on the boat prepared for their fun dives, with my instructor I reviewed the tasks and topics for my dives: Deep and Buoyancy. The first dive found me with a huge grin on my face at the depth of 33 meters (100 feet). We dove to the wreck of an old World War II fighter plane: a Corsair, the only true wreck on Oahu and I felt as if I was a miniature diver inside an aquarium, with the model plane below me surrounded by sand, and fish of all variety circling the wreck. Visibility was over 30 meters and the deep blue of the ocean faded to a soothing azure. Once again I wished I had my camera, but diving at that depth for the first time I wanted to concentrate on my tasks.
I took one day off from diving to rest and catch up with old friends and before I knew it I was back on the boat with the new air tanks waiting to be used. This time I had my camera and was looking forward to photograph some sea turtles as our dives were going to be at the turtles cleaning station. Unfortunately the ocean was pretty rough, both at the surface and below and we had to change our plans, since visibility was reduced to only about two feet at the original dive spot. During the entire time of the two dives I played with the controls of my Canon G10 in its underwater casing and took both still and video. I quickly learned that the diffuser which came with the casing is completely useless, so I stopped shooting with flash. That made the  colors look somewhat washed out (and some disappeared completely) on the photo, although thanks to my mask and its special coating my sight still retained the reds at a little more depth than a regular mask would. Without strobes (direct flash doesn’t work underwater as there are too many particles suspended between the camera and your subject which get an overdose of light if you fire the flash directly at them) it’s hard to get good photos and they will mostly look blue, but it was fun to do it and it gives me a better understanding of how light works underwater.

Review: HDRSoft’s Photomatix

(Discount Coupon Available Below)

In photography and Image Processing HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a technique that allows a much greater range of light intensity from the lightest to the darkest area of an image than a regular image produced by a common camera. Tone mapping techniques aim to reduce the overall contrast so that an image with greater luminosity range can be displayed on devices that are not capable of showing that range while, at the same time, maintaining localized contrast. This can also be exaggerated in order to create artistic effects.
True high dynamic range photos can be obtained by capturing multiple shots of the same scene with different exposures  and merging them in a software like HDRSoft’s Photomatix. This is what I use for all my HDR needs.

Now, I can already hear some of you groaning: “HDR looks so fake…” – Well, it doesn’t have to. As a matter of fact, HDR can look as real as human eye can see (remember that our eyes can see by far a much greater contrast than the sensor of the best camera in the market), or as artistic as you want it to be. In my experience as a photographer I came across all sort of HDR/Tone Mapped images and I can guarantee you that a job well done cannot be always told apart from non-HDR/Tone Mapped images.

There were times when a photographer would have to give up a particular shot (or be very creative about it) because the light just wasn’t right. Your classic example would be a dark interior with bright light coming from the windows: you want to show the interior as well as the scenery outside of the windows but the sensor of your camera (or the film) cannot resolve such a high contrast; it’s either one or the other. Photoshop has many times come to our help: if the contrast isn’t excessive we could create an adjustment layer and modify highlights, shadows, etc. in a particular area of the image. In case of excessive contrast, though, that technique can only get a close approximation to reality, I’m saying a close approximation because for as powerful as it is, Photoshop cannot create data that is not there, the missing highlights were not captured in the first place, and the part of the image that is too dark cannot be lightened over a certain amount or it will become highly noisy. Landscape photographers face scenes with high contrast all the time and many times we have been able to overcome this problem by using a split neutral density filter. Unfortunately it only works when there is a net distinction between the dark side and the bright side of the image, as when we are taking the photo of a sunset over the sea. Suppose you want to shoot a “tunnel” created by a canopy of trees where the ground is dark, the canopy itself is brighter and the “end of the tunnel” is really bright; or maybe you want to shoot the movement of the waves under a boardwalk. Fortunately, for these and many other situations, HDR software comes to our help. There are many programs out there, and even Photoshop CS4 can merge to an HDR image (with a serious lack of options and a serious lack of speed), but in my opinion the best one in the market is Photomatix. I don’t want to get into fine details because the web abounds of reviews of this excellent program as well as tutorials so let’s just take a look at some of the features…

First of all, Photomatix is very easy to use, you can actually drag and drop images in its interface and with just a few clicks that don’t require anything more than following on-screen instructions you get your first HDR image. For the power users, though, the possibilities are nearly endless. There are so many ways to tweak you final results that you could spend hours playing with it (and you probably will).
The program comes as a stand-alone as well as plug-ins for Photoshop CS2, CS3, CS4, Lightroom and Aperture. At the start-up of the stand-alone application we are presented with an empty window and a small menu window (the Workflow Shortcuts window). Click on “Generate HDR image” or “Exposure Fusion” then browse and select or drag & drop the images that you want to use (these can be either RAW or JPEG). In the next step we choose if we want to align hand-held images and how (I find that the option “matching features” gives better results); Reduce Noise and Chromatic Aberrations, Reduce Ghosting Artifacts (in case you have movement in the images, like leaves); and then some more options that are specific to JPEG or RAW. We click OK and let the software work. After some time which varies on the complexity and size of the image, the file format, and how powerful your computer is, we are shown a preliminary version to which we will apply Tone Mapping using standard setting or customizing any or all of the many options available. After playing with the interface for a while we can create a pretty realistic scene. We can also save a lot of time with the Batch Processing interface that is filled with options ranging from the number of exposures to the Color Profile and a lot more.
As I mentioned, the software can do an alignment of multiple exposures for hand-held shots. I prefer to use a tripod, but it’s not always possible and the results I’ve seen with the automatic alignment are great.

Photomatix comes both in 32 bit and 64 bit versions for Windows and Mac. The 64 bit version naturally only runs in 64 bit Operating Systems. A 32 bit Operating System can only address up to 3 GB of RAM because of physical limitations that cannot be overcome. If you want to use 4GB of RAM or more you need to use a 64 bit version of the OS or this will see the amount of memory but will not be able to address it. My main computer is a custom built PC with Windows 7 64bit and Photomatix 64bit runs flawlessly on it. If you are upgrading your PC from XP or Vista to 7, the good news is that the upgrade DVD contains both versions. As with all upgrades there might be some incompatibilities between old 32bit software and a 64bit OS but so far (and I was a beta tester of Windows 7 64bit since July 2009) I have found none; even Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2.0 come with 32 bit and 64 bit versions. On the plus side, if you have more than 3GB of RAM your PC will always run at the very least a bit faster in the 64bit version. Personally, I don’t think photographers and video editors should be allowed to use 32bit Operating Systems 🙂

These are the version of Photomatix and Plug-ins available for sale:

Photomatix Light is a stand-alone program which allows the merging of bracketed exposures into one single image with Tone Mapping or Exposure Fusion and also does an automatic alignment of hand-held photos.

Plug-In for Photoshop CS2, CS3, CS4 provides a tone mapping method for this well known Adobe software.

Photomatix Plug-In for Aperture 2.1 or higher provides HDR Tone Mapping, automatic alignment of hand-held photos, and options for reduction of noise and chromatic aberrations in HDR images.

Photomatix Pro is a stand-alone program with options for Exposure Fusion, HDR Tone Mapping, Automatic Alignment of hand-held photos, reduction of ghosting, noise and chromatic aberration in HDR images, Batch processing and includes an Adobe Photoshop Lightroom plug-in. It can also convert a single RAW image into a pseudo-HDR image with Tone Mapping and an option to modify the White Balance.

Photomatix Pro Plus Bundle includes Photomatix Pro as well as the Photoshop and Aperture plug-ins.

HDRSoft has agree to provide a 15% Discount using coupon code:  LucaDianaPhoto

EXAMPLES:


The three original Exposures
This is the final result optimized in Photoshop for contrast in the windows
HDR Tone Mapped from 3 Exposures on tripod
HDR Tone Mapping Final Result 3 exposures
Exposure Fusion of 3 images

 

Review: Cotton Carrier

Hiking is a big part of the landscape and wildlife photographer’s life and mine but this means that we often return home with lower back pain and a chafed neck caused by the camera strap. I also find annoying having the camera hitting me  repeatedly in the stomach while I walk with the strap around my neck. My old Minolta 9Xi suffered major scratches from constantly hitting my belt. Some time ago I purchased a camera backpack which does the job of easing the carrying part, but what if the situation arises when you need your camera quickly in your hands? Take the backpack off your back, open it, remove the camera, watch the critter go, place the camera in the backpack, wear it again and keep hiking without that unique shot. I’m sure this situation is familiar to many photographers.

Fortunately, the smart people at Cotton Carrier thought of a system that allows for the camera to be in the near-ready position at all times and reducing the fatigue from carrying it around your neck. The system consists of a vest that wears comfortably under or on top of any other garment and can be fitted with a side holster (sold separately or as part of a package) that allows for carrying a second camera. I often hike with two cameras: my Canon 5D Mark II fitted with the 24-105 L and the Canon 50D (soon to be replaced by the 7D) with the 100-400 L, in this case the side holster is a welcome addition. For the times when I’m only interested in shooting landscape, I can remove the holster or, using a rubber band, I can even use it to carry a small bottle of water.
I took the Cotton Carrier out for a few test hikes and I was immediately surprised by how well it distributes the weight around the shoulders/upper back area. The vest, actually, is streamlined enough to allow the use of a backpack on top of it. For my test hikes I picked a variety of terrain: flat, uphill, downhill, in thick brush, off-trail and rocky. In all these situations the Cotton Carrier revealed itself to be of great help. In some of them, like hiking on rocky uphill terrain off the trail I’d say it was nearly essential. Not only could I stop worrying about my camera swinging around, but I was able to use both my hands to gain a solid grip on the rocks while ascending. On flat terrain I also took a test run, jogging moderately without touching the camera to see if the carrier would come in handy in that situation. Every once in a while I find myself having to run from a spot to another with the camera strap around my neck while holding it by the lens. Needless to say after a few yards the fun is over. Not only was I able to run faster with the Cotton Carrier but the weight of the camera was once again greatly minimized.
The system comes in black only, the new model has just been upgraded with a hard anodized aluminum hub (the part that gets screwed at the base of the camera) and at first is a little hard to lock but the company has informed me that after 20 or so ins and outs it will slide more smoothly; which in my experience turned out to be true . The package comes with an instruction sheet (with photos) for a step by step set-up as well as a care and maintenance sheet. It took me only minutes to set it all up and adjust it to my body without even taking a look at the instructions (but do make sure that the arrows marked on the hub points in the right direction). The vest will fit a small person as well as a large one as the straps and Velcro are highly adjustable. The system is covered by a 1 year warranty against manufacturer’s defects.
There is an additional accessory for tripod use but I did not get a chance to test it. Toward the end of the day there were times when I completely forgot I was wearing it.

With winter approaching, as I often shoot snow sports for magazines I look forward to wear this over my winter jacket while I snowboard. Skier photographers will be able to use their poles while still carrying their camera at the ready. This system has definitely revolutionized the way I carry my gear.

In conclusion, my impression of the Cotton Carrier system is highly favorable. It’s light, comfortable, efficient and once folded small enough to pack anywhere: luggage or backpack. It will definitely become an essential part of my photographic equipment. Prices start at $109. Accessories are also available.


Click this text to go to the COTTON CARRIER website

Japan Day 11 – Miyajima & Hiroshima

Beware of Deer!

Without any doubt, in this trip filled with adventures and humor, to me the evening spent in Hiroshima was the most emotionally draining part of the journey, but let’s go in order… 

Not even one minute here and I already got robbed!

After passing Osaka and Kobe the scenery changed from urban to gentle hills to urban again surrounded by tall hills and lots of green. I can never get tired of the Japanese landscape, it’s so photogenic. Arriving in Hiroshima the thing that jumped to my eyes the most was the large quantity of green spaces and the beautiful hilly background. We expected to see a regular city with tall buildings and not much else, and because of that we came with the intention of skipping the city almost entirely and head instead to the shrine island of Miyajima (also called Itsukushima). Later on we came to regret this decision as we realized that Hiroshima deserves some time to be seen and appreciated, but we made the most out of our time to see as much as we could of this city. What else can you do when you have to 15 days to visit a country that deserves a lifetime? 

The Shrine and Cherry Blossoms

At the station we hopped on a local train which took us out of the city, to the harbor , where we paid for a ferry ride to Miyajima. The ride was only just over ten minutes long, and ferries ran every fifteen minutes. Although short, the ferry ride gave me a chance to photograph the Torii of the Itsukushima Shrine from the water, using the tall hills of the island for background. This is the first view of the world famous Torii one gets as they approach the land mass, and the scenery can change drastically as the tide retreats during the day. Out of the ferry we were given maps of the island with local attractions and hiking trails. I barely made it out of the gates when a deer snatched the map out of my hands and started chewing on it, to much tourists amusement. I tried to chase it to get my map back but all I could achieve was petting it on the head. There were many deer at the dock, all seeking attention and food. Supposedly wild deer, they are so used to tourists that they behave more like domestic cats, walking slowly among the crowd and rubbing themselves on people: an attraction of their own. Many of these had their antlers cut, so not to cause damage, and I noticed a sign which read: “Do not approach deer with antlers.” We just did what million other tourists before us have done and took many photos with these unlikely pets. 

The Itsukushima Torii

Once our excitement for the animals faded a bit we walked along the shoreline toward the town center and soon arrived in front of the Torii on the water. The tide was high and it seemed as if the sacred gate was floating. On the water we could also see many poles, used for the oyster fields, another reason for which Miyajima is famous. Carts and little shops roasting and selling these delicacies were scattered around the town, so we stopped at one and took place in line to savor the seafood; these were some of the biggest oysters I had yet to see. Grilled on an open flame I had to wait a few minutes before I could eat mine, but once I did, a delicious taste filled my mouth: best oysters ever.

We visited a 5-storey Pagoda, which we had seen from the boat, and later entered a park to a trail that serves as foot access to the tallest hill of the island. There is an aerial tram that serves one of the peaks but our favorite method of locomotion is walking, and a long and steep hike it was. We crossed a few people on the way up but not as many as we expected to see; the trail climbed under a forest and next to a stream that once in a while offered some low waterfalls. A sign said that monkeys lived in the forest but we didn’t see any, what we saw was more deer, totally oblivious of us. The hike took us to an elevation of 550 meters (about 1,800 feet) and we still couldn’t see below us because of the thick woods. We arrived at a small temple, and stopped to pay our respects to the flame that, legend has it, has been burning for nearly 1000 years, kept alive by the monks. The smell of incense permeated the inside of the small dark wooded temple, making us forget the long climb and rejuvenating our spirit. Another short walk and we got to the summit, where a majestic view of the green beauty of Hiroshima Bay and the city presented itself in front of us. On the opposite side the enchantment of the Pacific Ocean and numerous islets, some inhabited some not, and more oyster poles, opened below us. All these islands, including ours, where entirely covered in a lush vegetation. It’s beautiful to see that not all places where humans have set their foot have lost their natural charm. The place presented us with more photographic opportunities and I shot a lot of memory card space using my super wide-angle. Our way down, different than the way we took to come up, wasn’t easy. If anything, it was made substantially more difficult by the effort of keeping a constant slow speed on a tortuous downhill steep path. After walking for about 9Km (5.5 miles) which felt like 20 we were once again in the village and immediately noticed how, during the hours we spent away, the tide had retreated. The big Torii wasn’t floating on the water anymore but was instead surrounded by land and many people walked to it, while many other searched the now dry seabed for mollusks filling their bags with the exquisite seafood.

Happy with the visit of this quite unique place, we waved our goodbyes from the sea to the island, the Pagoda, the Torii and the paper-eating deer. 

The Ocean and Oyster Beds

The one thing we had to visit at all costs in Hiroshima was going to close in a few hours so we rushed to its location as fast as we could: the A-Bomb Museum. The museum was created with the willingness to spread a message of peace to the world, in the hope that what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki would never again be repeated. Passed a bridge we arrived at the ruins of a building now known as the “A-Bomb Dome.” When the bomb exploded above the city, on that August 6th 1945, the detonation happened on top of the dome and that’s the reason why this building was nearly spared as the 

The Dome seen through the Peace Monument

detonation irradiated away from this point. The city made strong efforts to preserve it for the future generations, as a witness of what happened, even if many wanted it demolished to remove the painful memory. Today, the ruins of what used to be a beautiful building have been declared world historical patrimony. The bomb, exploded at a height of 600 meters above the city, caused the death of about 200,000 people, many of which students, as the city was a university city during the war. The museum was just ahead, a nice looking modern building of concrete and glass. Upon entering  we rented some headphones for the English translation of the displays. The main room, right after the entrance hall, offered a history of Japan in the decades that preceded the war. The rest of the visit was dotted with objects, documents, and storytelling of the 

events of that day and what followed. This was overwhelming for anyone who cares at the very least a bit about humanity. Even Lindsey became unusually quiet for the rest of the evening.
Closeup of the A-Bomb Dome

I was impressed and baffled on how the Japanese have remained objective in telling just the events without any feeling, I don’t think any other country could have managed. We slowly and quietly walked out of the museum and, except for a few comments at the moment, we never discussed it again. It’s as if the pain felt by this nation permeated our skin. I left thinking that the world would be a better place if all people of Earth visited this museum.

We walked some more under the evening lights of this beautiful city and treated ourselves to some nice Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki before catching our train to Osaka which we rode without saying a word. We were exhausted. 

The A-Bomb Dome