April 23, 2013

Photos from Leah and Josh’s Wedding Celebration

Josh Smiling

I went down to Lafayette, Louisiana, last weekend for my friends Josh and Leah’s wedding celebration. Leah and Josh live in Boston these days, but Josh grew up in Raine (which isn’t too far from Lafayette), and they wanted to have the wedding celebration there.

One of the main events, other than the reception itself, was a crawfish boil the afternoon of the reception. This was my first time going to a crawfish boil (and I hadn't actually eaten unshelled crawfish before either). I love shrimp, so I figured it’d be fine—my only small moment of pause was the mental image of eating food that still had its face on it. But in the end, I followed along with the more seasoned crawfish eaters, and things went just fine.

Lafayette isn't a big town, but it’s pretty charming. For the most part, I just parked my car at the hotel and walked almost everywhere—I walked to restaurants, I walked to the reception, and I ambled around for general photo-walking. A goof on my part was that my feet were frowning a bit from all that walking, but I probably should have know better than to jaunt around Lafayette in those strappy wedge sandals.

I’m so glad I had a chance to join Leah and Josh for their wedding celebration. They’re a fantastic couple, and Lafayette is a delightful little town.

April 8, 2013

Photos from Winterfamilytime 2012

Dad Laughing

Yeah, I know it’s April. But better late than never, right? Between killer projects at work and a freelance gig that was in crunch mode too, I’ve had a pretty full plate. But things have started to get back to normal, and I thought I’d do some catching up on some photo bits.

I visited my family in Charlotte for Winterfamilytime back in December and I had a jolly time seeing everyone. Gosh, that seems like ages ago. Well, I guess it kinda was.

Jan. 1, 2013

Photos from Thanksgiving 2012

Mom Enjoying a Cuppa

I visited my parents over Charlotte over Thanksgiving. My brother and his girlfriend, Margaret, came to visit as well. They’ve been together for a bit, but I hadn’t a chance to meet Margaret until this visit—not that I had any doubts, but she was super nice and a fun person to have around.

I tried to take a few shots on Thanksgiving day, but I sort of ended up painting myself into a corner with a lighting setup that was a little too complicated for my own britches. (I had two flashes, one with a LumiQuest Softbox LTp, and one with a regular LumiQuest Softbox. I was using a line-of-sight flash trigger—Canon’s ST-E2—which usually works great, but my flashes were on opposite ends of the kitchen and that didn’t play so well with the line-of-sight part.)

In the following days, though, I pared down my setup to solely a LumiQuest Quik Bounce mounted to an on-camera 580EX II and that worked out much better—I was able to open the baffles on the Quik Bounce and that allowed me to bounce a some of the light off the ceiling, which helped soften the light quite a bit. When next Thankgiving comes around, I’ll probably try to stick with a more simplified setup (like I had on the latter days) rather than overthinking things quite so much.

July 27, 2012

Photos from Bryan and Lyn’s House

Kitchen

My friends Bryan and Lyn moved to San Diego and they asked if I could help take some shots for the listing for their house. I thought it would be a fun thing to try and I jumped at the chance. As I don’t as often take shots of homes and interiors, I did a little reading up on the subject over the few days before the shoot. Among other pages I looked through, I found that Photo Centric has a pretty comprehensive set of pages on photographing interiors.

I won’t go over all the tips they mention, but among those that stick out in my mind, they recommend using a tripod (no surprise, there) and they also stress the importance of keeping one’s camera level, especially when taking shots with a wide-angle lens. Keeping one’s camera level left-to-right is probably old hat, but they point out that keeping one’s camera level front-to-back particularly helps lessen wide-angle distortion. (This is one of those times where a hot-shoe bubble level can come in handy.)

Given the challenges of lighting an empty house—and that I didn’t want to take up their Realtor’s whole afternoon with intricate strobe setups—I turned to HDR for my shots. As I don’t often shoot HDR, I figured I should brush up on some of the details, so I picked up my well-worn copy of Scott Kelby’s “Adobe Photoshop CS5 Book for Digital Photographers” to jog my memory. (The book is mostly about processing photos with Photoshop CS5—and it’s excellent for that—but it also has a couple chapters on topics like HDR workflow.)

If you’re just getting into HDR, there’re a couple things to keep in mind on the picture-taking side. Among them, you need to shoot in RAW mode and you also need to set your camera to use exposure bracketing with a span of at least 2 stops on either side of your normal-exposure shot (that is to say, a shot 2 stops underexposed, a normal exposure, and a shot 2 stops overexposed). It’s OK if you’re able to exceed 2 stops on either end—such as a sequence of -4, -2, 0, +2, +4 if you happen to have 5-shot bracketing—but the important part is that it’s at least 2 stops.

Canon DSLRs allow for a 2-stop bracketing interval, so you can get by with just 3-shot bracketing. On the other hand—and for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me—many modern Nikon DSLRs allow for at most a 1-stop bracketing interval. Fortunately, many of those same Nikon DSLRs offer up to 9-shot bracketing sequences, so even if your shots are 1 stop apart, you can still go for a sequence such as -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 and you’ll have the range that you need.

Another trick that Scott mentions in his book is that if you enable both bracketing and high-speed continuous shooting, you can capture a full HDR sequence with a single shutter press. (On my Canon 40D, I have to hold down the shutter—click, click, click—before I let go, but other camera models might allow you to tap and let go of the shutter and have it take the entire sequence.)

It’s rather handy to be able to hold down the shutter and have the camera sweep through your bracketing sequence, but even so, one’s overexposed end of the bracketing sequence may end up with exposures as long as 3–4 seconds. You may feel that’s the least of your concerns if you’re using a tripod anyway, but sometimes even the action of depressing the shutter can introduce a tiny amount of blur when you’re dealing with exposures that long.

To help counteract that potential for camera shake, one easy solution is to use a remote shutter release. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one of those fancy wireless shutter releases—although those are fine too— but even a simple wired shutter release with a 2–3' cord is perfectly fine. The main thing is just having a shutter that’s physically separate from your camera body.

Pre-HDR-processing bracketing sequence I used for Bryan and Lyn’s kitchen

There’s a perception that HDR shots necessarily have that overprocessed “HDR look”, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If one practices restraint and resists the temptation to turn all the knobs to eleven, one can end up with shots that make use of HDR without being a garish mess. As well, although one can use fancy 3rd-party software for processing HDR shots, Photoshop from version CS5 forward is actually pretty decent, so if you already have that, you’re all set—and that’s what I used for these shots. (HDR processing in Photoshop CS4 and earlier, on the other hand, is fairly rubbish and if that’s the version you happen to have, you’re probably better off with 3rd-party software such as Photomatix.)

If you had wanted to see how one of my exposures came together, I’ve included the pre-HDR-processing bracketing sequence I used for the shot of Bryan and Lyn’s kitchen. At first glance, the 2-stops-overexposed shot (the bottom shot among the three) may look similar to the final HDR shot (which you can also see at the top of this post), but if you take a closer look, you can see that both the fridge and the window ended up blown-out in that shot. As well, if you look at the kitchen ceiling in each of the three shots, you can see how no single exposure was able to capture the ceiling without either overexposing or underexposing swaths of it. Fortunately, that’s an area in which HDR can help and in the final shot I was able to get a more even exposure across the ceiling.

If you know what to look for, you may see a few signs of HDR in a couple shots, but I was really just looking for lifelike exposures without turning the shots into photographic versions of Toontown. After processing the shots, I passed them along to Bryan and Lyn’s Realtor and he added them to their listing. I’m really happy to have be able to help out my friends a bit and I’m pleased with how they turned out.

April 17, 2012

Recipe: Ginger Molasses Cookies

My brother made some of these ginger molasses cookies over the winter break and I rather enjoyed them. They have a crisp exterior but a chewy interior and they sort of resemble a cross between gingerbread and spice cookies.

Later I asked my brother for the recipe and he happily passed it along, mentioning that he originally got the recipe from his friend Kristin. (They’re yummy, Kristin!)

Ingredients:

  • 4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 4 tsp ground ginger (ground ginger from the spice aisle is fine)
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened or at room temperature
  • 6 Tbsp non-fat plain yogurt (or, if you don’t have plain yogurt, you can add an additional 3/4 cup butter instead)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 3/4 cup coarse or granulated sugar with 1 tsp kosher salt mixed in with a fork

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.

  2. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, ground ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, ground cloves and salt—set aide.

  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 sec to soften. Add 2 cups sugar, beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Beat in yogurt, eggs, and molasses until combined. Beat in as much of the flour mixture as you can with the mixer. If need be, use a wooden spoon to stir in any remaining flour mixture.

  4. Shape dough into 1 1/2 to 2-inch balls. Roll balls in the 3/4 cup sugar (that you had mixed with the kosher salt). Place dough about 2 1/2 inches apart on cookie sheets.

  5. Bake at 350° for 12–14 minutes. If baking multiple cookie sheets at a time, swap sheets halfway through. Bake until cookies are light brown and puffed. Do not overbake! Cool on cookie sheet for 2 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool.

Feb. 15, 2012

Photos from SXSW 2011

Next Week Out Skinny

I’ve been going to SXSW—a music, film, and interactive conference—for a long time. But I look forward to it every year and this coming year (2012) with be the 10th Southby for me.

It’s not lost on me that I’m posting my shots from SXSW 2011 when we’re only about three weeks out from SXSW 2012. I don’t have much of an excuse other than to say that I guess I had a lot going on last year. But they’re posted. Of the 303 shots I took over those six days in March, I’ve posted 19 of them.

Jan. 24, 2012

Photos from Winterfamilytime 2011

Adrian’s New Chef’s Hat

I visited my parents in December for Winterfamilytime. Pleasantly, the weather was really nice in Charlotte—it hardly felt much like winter some days (not that I minded).

Among the photos I’ve posted, I used the same lighting setup that I had used last year—I used one flash with a Lumiquest LTp Softbox that I attached to the second-floor walkway railing and I used my other flash with a Lumiquest Softbox that I attached to the mantle.

Cross-light often accommodates a fair degree of flexibility when photographing an environment, though for reasons that elude me, it seemed to work a little better for my shots last year than it did this year. (With a cross-light setup, two lights face each other on a diagonal axis to the subject that’s in-between them.) Although it’s somewhat a hunch, what may have happened this time is that I may have had too wide an arc between the subjects and my lights.

On one hand, it’s hard to say where people are going to sit, and on the other hand, there’re only so many places from which one can hang flashes. So as I daydream around how I might set things up next year, I’m pondering the idea of maybe getting a third flash to offer some fill-in light along the axis that may be getting the short end of the stick lighting-wise. (You could think of the lighting setup I’ve been using as similar to a “/” shape and the one I’m considering might look a bit like a lowercase lambda, “λ”.)

Jan. 2, 2012

Recipe: Tomato and Basil Bruschetta

I had been looking for a good recipe for some time and I finally found a bruschetta recipe that I liked on Allrecipes.

There’re not a lot of fancy ingredients here, but what I especially like about this recipe is that it calls for a thin layer of herb-cheese spread on the bread before one adds the tomato mixture. That rather effectively keeps the bread from becoming soggy, which is great if you may be setting out the bruschetta as hors d’oeuvres that need to last through a cocktail party or the like.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar [Among supermarket brands, I quite like Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico.]
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced [Apparently a Microplane can work well for this, if you have one.]
  • 7 roma (plum) tomatoes, chopped
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 sourdough baguette, cut into ½" thick slices [I like to cut the bread on a bias to create a larger surface area for each slice. Plus it looks nice too.]
  • 1 (4 oz) package semi-soft cheese with garlic and herbs (such as Alouette)
  • (optional) Shredded deli Parmesan, to taste [This is often sold in a small circular tub of about 2" high and around 4" across.]

Directions:

  1. Mince the garlic, chop the basil, and then whisk those together with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a bowl.

  2. Chop the tomatoes and stir those into the mixture with the whisk. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (You’ll need to add salt and pepper, stir, and repeat the process a couple times—it may take three sets to get the mixture properly seasoned.)

  3. Cover with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator to marinate for at least 20 minutes. (The plastic wrap should be right on top of the tomato mixture to prevent it from drying out.)

  4. Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C). Spread the bread slices in a single layer on a large baking pan.

  5. Bake in the oven until golden, about 10 minutes. Remove to cool on a wire rack.

  6. When the bread is cool, spread the semi-soft cheese evenly over each slice. Using a slotted spoon, spoon some of the tomato mixture over each slice. (You may as well leave the bread on the baking trays for this step; that way, if any of the tomato mixture topples over the sides, it’s not a big deal.)

  7. Optional: If desired, sprinkle some shredded deli Parmesan over each slice and, on the broiler setting, slide the bread trays back into the oven, taking them out once the cheese becomes melty.

  8. Depending how hot they are, you may need a spatula to transfer the bruschetta to a serving tray. (Sometimes a wooden cutting board can work nicely for this.) They’re ready to eat immediately.

If desired, the tomato mixture can be made a day ahead of time. In fact, a little extra marinating of the ingredients can make the final product all the more scrumptious. Just be sure to cover the bowl with plastic wrap before placing it in the fridge.

Dec. 22, 2011

Photos from Thanksgiving 2011

Adrian is Incredulous

I visited my family in Charlotte, North Carolina over Thanksgiving. Pleasantly, my brother Adrian was able to come too— in the past few years, Adrian had been living in Cape Town and hadn’t been able to make it to Thanksgiving.

I really debated which lens to shoot, whether my 50mm f/1.4 or my 17–55 f/2.8 IS. Theoretically, the 50mm could let in heaps more light (and potentially allow for sharper shots), but on the other hand, the image stabilization of my 17‐55 does quite well toward reducing camera shake too.

In the end, I went with my 50mm, although I’m not sure that was my best option. Sure, the 50mm f/1.4 could theoretically let in four times as much light (2 stops) as the 17–55mm f/2.8, but as I was processing the photos later, I came to realize that IS often provided more than two stops of stabilization. So, for example, shooting at f/1.4 at 1/30sec on my 50mm often resulted in blurry shots, but if one takes the equivalent exposure of f/2.8 at 1/6sec, I know my image stabilization would be able to handle at least some of those.

At this point, you might be thinking, “f/1.4 at 1/30sec? That sounds like a ton of light.” And with a more modern camera it probably would be. But with my 4-year-old Canon 40D, I can’t really go above about ISO 400 without running into serious noise issues. So while you 5D Mark II shooters probably don’t give a second thought to shooting at ISO 800 or even ISO 1600, those options are pretty much out of bounds for me.

All told, I did enjoy the freedom—as it were—of not having to worry about zooming my lens to compose a shot (since one can’t with that lens) and the 50mm is also considerably lighter as well. So perhaps I might lean toward my 17–55mm the next time I shoot that type of scene.

Camera fiddly bits aside, I believe we had fourteen people for Thanksgiving (including my family), which is a pretty good number, but not altogether as many people as we had last year. Because some of our relatives were driving in from out of town and we weren’t quite sure if they might run into traffic along the way, we asked guests to come over around 4:30/5:00.

As we’ve done in past years, we cooked our turkey on the grill over the course of several hours—like usual, my dad put the bird on around 2:30 or 3:00. On some of our previous Thanksgivings, we asked guests to come over nearabouts that time, which allowed for a couple hours of chatting and nomming hors d’oeuvres while the bird cooked. With guests coming over a bit later this year, we had slightly less gabbing time before the turkey was ready.

What I came to realize later is that the hour or two of pre-turkey chit-chat is when I would ordinarily take most of the day’s photos. And with this year’s shortened carousing time, maybe I should have been quicker on the draw to get a few more photos in. But mentally I was still on the timeline of previous years and so I kinda dropped the ball on some of my picture taking.

Picture stuff aside, I still had a great Thanksgiving—everyone was super nice, we were all in good spirits, and hardly anyone talked about politics. (Thanksgiving sans political banter? Mon Dieu!) Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, but this was one of the best I’ve had in a long time.

Sept. 26, 2011

Flat Screen Televisions

My friend Chris is moving into a new apartment in a couple weeks and he asked me the other day whether I had any suggestions on a new television for the place. As a home theater aficionado, I was only too happy to look into that pass along a few ideas.

Thinking ahead—as he does—Chris also shared the floor plan of his apartment to help narrow down an appropriate size set for the room. As it would happen, there are formulas for calculating an appropriate television size based off the dimensions of a room (or vice versa).

The short version is that one can roughly take the diagonal size of the screen and multiply it by 1.5 to get an approximate maximum distance that one would want to sit from the screen in order to be able to fully appreciate 1080p. (At distances past that, one loses starts to lose the ability to discern the finer details within a 1920×1080 image.)

So, I decided to run the numbers on Chris’ living room. The room is 15'9" × 17', although embarrassingly I couldn’t quite remember next to which wall he had wanted to place his television. No matter—once one divides those numbers in two (assuming that a couch may be placed halfway back within the room), that means that Chris’ couch would be approximately 8–9' back from whichever wall would be nearest the television.

I converted those distances to inches (96–110) just so that our final measurements, once we got there, would be appropriate for a television screen. From there, I divided each of those by 1.5 to get an optimum screen size of approximately 64–73 inches.

And here is where the compromises begin. Chris didn’t give me a specific budget, but I’m guessing he has some type of upper limit. And 65" televisions aren't cheap. As well, they can be rather heavy devices and I wasn’t sure whether that may be a factor.

Having said all that, I figured I’d go over a couple ideas, starting first with the cream of the crop and then offering a couple options that may be a bit more budget-friendly.

(But first, a quick caveat: Television manufacturers have ridiculous model-naming schemes. Rather than take an approach of assigning a single name to a series of models and appending a size, they tend to assign unique model numbers to each and every sub-model in their inventory. So, for the televisions below, I list both the specific model number of the television along with a wildcard mask (##) to convey the other sets in that series).

Top Pick: Panasonic’s TC-P65VT30 65" set. (TC-P##VT30 series)

This set isn’t cheap, but it’s a scorcher. C|Net praised the plasma as having the “deepest plasma black levels of the year” and crowned this “the best-performing TV we’ve tested in 2011.” As well, ConsumerSearch—a site that aggregates reviews— placed the 55" version of this set in their “Best 55-inch plasma TV” bucket.

Runner Up: Panasonic’s TC-P55VT30 55" set. (TC-P##VT30 series)

This one is basically the slightly-smaller sibling of 65" TC-P65VT30. With the same components going into this set (albeit with a skosh smaller screen), it’s sure to have fantastic picture quality like its bigger sibling.

Runner Up: Samsung’s PN51D8000 51" set. (PN##D8000 series)

Though this set may not have quite the black levels of Panasonic's finest, C|Net lauded this set for offering “the most accurate color of any TV we’ve ever reviewed.” ConsumerSearch chimed in as well, saying “[in] terms of color performance, there is no quibbling—it’s outstanding.

Closing Remarks

I think the sets here offer some good options, but even if you don’t go with one of these, I’d probably go with a plasma over an LCD-based set as they tend to offer better black levels.

As well, I happened to offer some links to B&H since I've received excellent service there, but I suppose you could order your television from anywhere. From whomever you buy it, though, I’d recommend opting for not just home delivery but also in-home setup or the like. Even if they don’t hook it up for you, just the act of unpacking it and placing it where you want it within the room could be handy (unless you really want to lift those 100-some pounds on your own).