Taking on gray, depressing grayness

The other day I mentioned how depressing and uninspiring our current weather is. It’s all a gray mass of gray and has been so for weeks. This is actually one of the reasons we survive the short days here in the Scandinavian hemisphere: nightfall at 3:30 in the afternoon is a relief compared to the gray mush we spend the day in.

Anyway, needing some exercise today and with no intention of turning it into a photo excursion, I saddled my bike and rode into the grayness, armed only with my cell phone. But of course, I had not gone for more than 10 minutes before I caught sight of the most beautiful and depressing abandoned… well, actually, I don’t know what it used to be, but anything abandoned is worth a picture, so off the bike I hopped and used my cell phone to capture the below likeness.

Sensing that all the grayness might be negotiable after all, it wasn’t long until I came upon my next suitable motif. A flat, depressing, gray, dreary, and did I mention, gray, field of grayish brown soil, broken only by a string of bare, cold, industrial power poles. This is as gray and boring as it gets, so I figured I’d capture it if only to show you what you’re up against in this country. However, while this is by no means a masterpiece, I felt that the spot actually had some potential, so I plan to return in the spring and see if I can capture a nice sunset here.

For the next image I once again had to rely on black and white to make it interesting. This may be my favorite shot of the day, but only after I took it through my Silver Effects Pro plugin.

The colors return for the next one, as the flock of geese taking off from a field makes up for an otherwise depressing scene of gray Danish flatness. I was lucky too, as a lone car passing by stirred up the birds enough for me to capture this pretty scene. A few pictures taken moments before this one, just showed the birds standing around doing nothing.

Finally, an attempt at mimicking Flickr star Nick Brundle whose favorite subject seems to be rolled up hay bales. I’m not quite at his level yet, but I was rather pleased with this one and its simplicity.

Well, while January and February will never be my favorite shooting months, I guess I got a little bit of confidence in myself today that you can in fact get something worthwhile out of the gray, light-deprived mush that we call winter around here. If nothing else, I got some much-needed exercise, covering more than 15 kilometers on my trusty iron horse.

Picking 20

January and February are horrible months for an outdoor photographer in this country. Seems like weeks since we saw even the tiniest ray of sunshine. We’ve been shrouded in gray grayness that is as inspiring to a photographer as Chicken McNuggets is to a Michelin inspector. So what better time to go through your old photos and updating your portfolio?

Well, that’s exactly what I did. I picked my favorite 20 pictures out of my Master Collection of 25,000. Actually, it’s not that simple. I had a few more criteria: 1) I wanted to include pictures from throughout my “career” as a photographer, 2) I wanted some variety in the subject matter, and 3) I wanted a mix of plain personal favorites and pictures that have proven their worth in public, two factors that  may or may not overlap. In other words, compromises had to be made, and every picture left out that I wanted to include was a struggle, but overall what I came up with is a good representation of what I consider my best work.

Check it out.

Summer memories

Since my last post about my more or less failed attempt at New Year’s Eve fireworks shooting, I’ve been wanting to put something a bit more flattering at the top of this blog. And what better excuse can you ask for than to show a few of my faves from my trip across the pond back in September? My three weeks in Idaho and Alberta (Canada) was a great opportunity for me to practice my photo skills on some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, sometimes with the inclusion of marvelous wildlife, majestic trains, and magical waterfalls.

These pictures, I hope, speak for themselves. Some of them I consider among my best work… as in, ever. Anything else would in fact have been a disappointment as even a chimpanzee with a disposable Kodak camera would have gotten several nice shots out of those locations.

Want more? Don’t miss my slideshow video made from some of these and other 2016 vacation pictures.

Fireworks… when will I get them right?

This blog is mostly an opportunity for me to show off my best work. For every picture I post here, I have 200 that are not as good. But this time I’m going to talk about my annual failed attempt to take pictures of the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Since getting my Sony A33 camera six years ago, on most New Year’s Eves I’ve gone outside after midnight to capture the spectacular spectacle of the neighborhood exploding in fireworks of all colors, sizes and price levels. And every single time, on reviewing the pictures, I must conclude that… they kind of suck.

I have tried all sorts of settings, following the advice of the experts, but something just isn’t quite right. In my mind, I’m going for something like this:

Fireworks, silhuette. Free photo from Pixabay.

I want not just the fireworks themselves, I want the surroundings, the people, the celebration, the awe… and of course, some well-defined, colorful blasts.

The good news is that I feel I’m getting closer every year. The bad news is, I’m nowhere near what I envision inside my head. And I may also be on the verge of concluding that the conditions for great fireworks photography are just not present in my local area.

Look at the picture below from the other night. We have the burst, we have the people, we have the street. But the problem with this, and my other pictures, is the utterly black Danish winter night. No amount of long exposure (my pictures shown here are between 3- and 15-second exposures) can turn blackness into anything other than blackness, and no post-processing can reveal details that even the human eye can’t see.

The next picture is just a 5-second exposure over nearby housing communities. Apart from battling the utter darkness, it was a challenge in post-processing to tone down the light from windows and streetlights in order to make the fireworks stand out.

This next one may be my own favorite of the night. The bursts of fireworks are wonderful, and overall, it’s the best-lit shot of the bunch. In this, as in some of the other shots, I have removed the trailing light of the rockets that is a result of long exposures. I realized, as I was looking at the pictures, that in real life you don’t see the trailing light and the explosion at the same time. In real life, you see the trailing light, then the explosion.

The last picture is pure cheating. The three big bursts of fireworks were taken from some of the other pictures and ‘shopped into a 15-second exposure of the neighborhood. The real bursts were nowhere near as big, but dammit, this comes closer to how I remember it than the actual pictures showed, so I have no scruples doing this. Whether I did it well enough to fool anyone else is another matter, but there! Now you know.

Time will show if I feel motivated to go out again on the next New Year’s Eve and try to improve on these results. What I need to do is to go where there is more light on the ground and more people gathered. And the question is if long exposures are always the way to go, or if quick bursts of 7-10 shots might produce some keepers.

Check back in a year to find out!

The world is not black and white…

… but that doesn’t mean a photo can’t be. I mean, I have personally been skeptical of black and white photography. If color photography had been invented first, would anyone have ever thought about black and white? I doubt it.

But lately I have come to appreciate the art of black and white photography and have turned more and more of my own pictures into black and white shots. What happened was that I realized black and white wasn’t just black and white. Black and white can have as many different expressions as color photography. I discovered this when I installed Google’s Nik Collection after Google started to offer this otherwise expensive software for free. Apart from well-known post-processing tools such as noise-reduction and sharpening, Nik Collection includes a tool called Silver Effect Pro that is basically an advanced black and white converter. And you don’t even have to use the advanced options. The presets are usually enough to blow my mind and do the job for me.

So below are some of my own favorite black and white shots, all made using Silver Effect Pro, and with a feeble attempt to explain what, in my opinion, makes them work in black and white.

I think this was the picture that opened my eyes to the power of black and white. In color, a rather bleh image of a neighborhood development, in black and white… something, to me, much more powerful.
A picture I took at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Copenhagen in 2016. In this case, I think the black and white style makes an otherwise very detailed image more soothing for the brain.
This abandoned cabin in Montana was a slam-dunk, I thought. But I just couldn’t get it right in post-processing due to the colors just being completely uninteresting. So what do you do? Remove the colors, of course. That hit the nail on the head.
The black and white here helped erase the difference between the car and nature and thus emphasizing nature reclaiming its materials. I could never have done that in color.
Another example of a picture that just didn’t work very well in color, because the colors were just kind of blah. Still not for everyone I guess, but I like it.
I posted a color version of this in my “Best of November” post, but I actually think it works even better in black and white. Technically and artistically one I’m rather proud of.

Best of November

November was a surprisingly active month for me photo-wise. I was out there with my camera three out of four weekends and actually got some pretty decent shots of the neighborhood and a little beyond.

The first three images were taken during a magic afternoon sunset at Strødam where I have posted pictures from before (yes, I trespassed again). They all feature swans, and they were all taken with my cell phone. I did bring my real camera, but the battery died before the magic started to happen in the shape of this flock of swans doing their bedtime routines. Not paying any attention to me standing right there on the shore, they went about their business of eating, chasing each other, and just floating around aimlessly in beautiful formations on the calm water.

The next picture was taken the following weekend and shows our local castle, Frederiksborg Castle. It’s one of the most beautiful castles in the country and I have taken tons of pictures of it. However, it had been a while since my last visit so I figured I would find a good spot and hope for a nice sunset. I didn’t quite get what I hoped for, but an orange stripe on the horizon along with dramatic clouds saved the day. I’ll be back though, because there’s a lot more potential in that castle than this image brings out.

Finally, on the last weekend of November, I went back to the Strøbæk area. It still amazes me how you can continue to find new spots and angles on otherwise well-known turf. I have passed this gate numerous times, but suddenly I saw what a fine composition lay hidden there. Post-processing revealed that it worked best in black and white, at least in my own opinion.

My last November fave was taken on the same day as the one above and shows a church in the tiny village of Gadevang, which is within walking distance of my house. It’s a typical Danish church and really nothing special, but I think I nailed it. It’s actually a stitch of two images as even my wide-angle lens couldn’t contain both the foreground and the church in one frame.

It will probably be too much to hope for that December will prove as productive for me as November. Especially since the days are getting so very short.

Finally the world is ready for my vacation pictures

It’s been a while since my last post here. Not for lack of picture-taking or writing-desire. On the contrary, during my annual voyage to the United States (with side trips to Canada and Iceland) in September, I took a couple of thousand. So instead of blogging, I have actually been busy selecting, post-processing, and organizing those pictures.

Out of the approximately 2000 pictures taken, I have saved around 400 to what I call my Master Collection. They are the pictures that I like, as well as those I want to keep for other reasons, like an important moment captured.

The challenge is to present some of those pictures. When you are an amateur photographer you go back and forth between loving and loathing your own work. During the former periods when you are full of confidence in your own skills, you want to show all your pictures to everybody, and you cannot fathom if everybody is not interested in seeing all your pictures. Nonetheless, that’s what the experts say: choose a few. And by “a few” they mean less than 50.

Of course, there’s no way I can just pick 50 or less, so what do you do? You turn them into a slideshow, or even a movie, and you add music and cool effects, and voila, suddenly 100+ pictures go down a lot easier. So that’s what I did, and I am happy enough with the result that I will share it here. I used Camtasia 9 from TechSmith, which I highly recommend. It may be primarily for screen capturing, but it works really well for slideshows too. It’s easy to use, and has tons of features and tweeking options.

It should be pointed out that some of the photos used in the video were taken by my wife Peggy and her daughter Jen, who are both much better than me at getting people to pose and capturing those familiy moments that are probably much more important to save than all the landscape pictures in the world.

And while I’m giving credit to others, the music in the video is “Drive All Night” by Bruce Springsteen, “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and “Way Back Home” by Band of Horses.

Later on I hope to post high definition versions of a few of the pictures included in the video – and possibly some not in the video – that I like and talk more about them and how they were taken.

Karsten reviews photo sharing sites: ViewBug

This is a new series where I will talk about the various photo sharing communities I participate in. Most of all, I will probably be whining about how stupid computer algorithms and conspiracies against my person prevent my genius as a photographer to be recognized, but I hope to also present some facts and information that may be of help if you are unsure of what photo community suits you best.

I will start by talking about one of the latest sites I joined: ViewBug. Which is also, in fact, my favorite. ViewBug is all about the contests. Every day new photo contests and challenges are added, such as “Pets in Black and White”, “People in Landscapes” or “Cities and the Rule of Thirds”. You can win cash prizes or camera equipment and other neat things.

Now, the chances of someone like me winning a contest is pretty slim. Each one has thousands and thousands of entries, and many of them are pretty mindblowing.  But at least you have a hope that it could happen. Because unlike most of the other photo communities I’ve tried, with ViewBug it seems everybody has the same chance of faring well. On other sites – some of which I will review later – it seems to matter more how many followers you have than how good your pictures are.

On ViewBug, on the other hand, once the voting starts, it’s all about who has shot the best picture. When you vote in a contest – and everybody can do that – you are presented with four random images and can vote for your favorite and your second favorite before you are presented with another set of four. This goes on for as long as you feel like it, because as mentioned above, each contest has way more entries than you’ll ever want to see.

So, after the public voting is over, the photos with the most votes enter a final round where human expert judges have their say. Their favorite becomes the final winner, but a “people’s choice” award is also given, one must assume for the picture with the most public votes.

All of this gives you the feeling that justice is, for the most part, served. Sure, I’ve been wondering about some of the winners and finalists and in some cases how badly I have fared myself with what I thought was a pretty decent picture, but overall, ViewBug blows away the competition when it comes to fairness. My pictures often end up in the best 10-50% segment, and that’s probably what they deserve.

The notable exception to my usual performance was the very first picture I submitted to ViewBug. The picture of my wife’s daughter Jen chilling at a waterfall in Alberta, Canada, entered the final in a contest called “People and Waterfalls”. Now, entering a final on ViewBug is a pretty big deal. Of course, my picture didn’t win, but just being in the final brought me more exposure than I’d received on any other photo site. Before I knew it, I had 200+ followers and tons of “peer awards”.

Probably my best picture... ever. At least according to ViewBug.
Probably my best picture… ever. At least according to ViewBug.

And here’s the problem with ViewBug: the 200+ followers don’t really translate to much of anything. Every picture I have submitted since the waterfall one, has gone all but unnoticed in terms of likes and “awards”. Where, on 500px (another site I will review in the future), I will, within the first two hours, receive 15-30 likes for any decent picture I submit, I’m lucky to get five views and three likes on ViewBug.

So I guess so far that makes me sort of a one-hit-wonder on ViewBug. No matter how many other pictures I submit, it’s always “Waterfall Vegging”, as I titled it, that gets the attention. But I haven’t given up. Every time I upload a new picture, I’m sure that that’s the one that will bring me fame and fortune.

There’s a lot more to ViewBug, of course. They are masters at awarding you badges for everything from giving peer awards to getting certain amounts of followers. This along with interesting stats about your pictures makes ViewBug the champions at motivating their members.

My conclusion is that ViewBug is the best site if you are genuinely interested in having your pictures judged fairly and getting motivated. There’s not much of the instant gratification that you find on other sites. But if you are patient and can wait several weeks  – sometimes months – before contests and challenges are decided, you will be rewarded with a realistic idea of where you stand as a photographer. And get lots of inspiration as to what you need to work on in order to be a winner or a finalist.

Check out ViewBug.

Sunset magic on Strødam

I haven’t been doing a lot of serious picture taking so far this summer. It’s been a combination of bad weather and good weather. Good weather meaning clear blue sky, which equals uninteresting backgrounds in general and sunsets in particular.

But last Sunday evening the perfect conditions were suddenly present. Lots of clouds, but also lots of sun in between the clouds, promising a beautiful sunset. Additionally, there was absolutely no wind. This is important when shooting in low-light conditions when you need exposures of maybe up to 1/2 second and you don’t want wavy grass or moving leaves turning into blurry spots.

So off I went, over to a location I’ve gone to many times before: the Strødam area. Despite its beautiful lake and green surroundings, it’s not the easiest place to shoot. Most of it is fenced off. You have to stick to a path, and in most places, dense vegetation prevents you from accessing the lake shore. So most of my pictures in the past were kind of blah.

But on this evening I was determined to crack the nut called Strødam and get some quality sunset shots. I quickly realized, however, that that wasn’t going to happen sticking to the official path. So I did what all serious photographers have to do once in a while: I trespassed. I jumped the fence, determined to chase the sunset, which I could tell would be on the other side of a ridge in the middle of the fenced area.

The fence that had to be jumped is in itself worthy of a picture.

So into the fenced area I went. No one came out of the woods to yell at me, and I was not attacked by angry wildlife. Still, I felt brave as a Navy Seal.

Fortunately, my bravery was rewarded. Reaching the top of the ridge, a  dream scenery manifested itself below me: a herd of cows peacefully grazing on a meadow, a calm lake, and all of it shrouded in a purple and orange sunset with the sun having almost disappeared behind a tree line.

Over the next 30 minutes I took dozens of pictures of varying exposures, ISO and f-values. I moved closer a few times to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was certain this scenery was a slam-dunk and that I was shooting the pictures of my life!

And, well, it’s not that I’m unhappy with the result, but I’m just not completely happy either.  A better foreground would have been nice for starters, but the main problem is that it’s just not as sharp as I would have liked it to be. I don’t know if it’s my camera, my lens, or my skills that leave something to be desired, but those cows should have had a lot more details.

A dream scenery, but is it a dream shot?

One of the best pictures was taken as I was leaving the area. A few cows had moved over to where I had been moments before, so I stopped and got a few shots off before I retreated, afraid the cows might start chasing me (so much for being a Navy Seal). Again, it should have been sharper, but the motif is kind of pretty.

Last cow shot of the evening.

In the end, my own favorite shots of the night were not of cows or lakes. I really like this one of the purple flowers under a purple sky. Sure, the purple has been enhanced, but it really was an absolutely gorgeous scene.

Purple on purple.

Finally, just before I left the area, it was time for a self-congratulating selfie. It might have been better without the chubby fellow awkwardly embodying the rule of thirds, but there he is.

I’m not a man of the church, but…

As a non-religious person my interest in churches has always been… hmm… how shall I put it? … rather limited. But since my photography hobby got the best of me in the last few years, I have come to appreciate them more… if only as photo subjects.

So the other day when my wife and I went on a weekend excursion to Roskilde, one of the things I was looking forward to the most was to explore Roskilde Cathedral with my camera. Now, Roskilde Cathedral is one of the largest and oldest churches in Denmark where many important people from Danish history are buried, including kings and queens.

Roskilde Cathedral was built during the 12th and 13th century (according to Wikipedia), and while it may not compare with famous cathedrals of Rome or London, it’s plenty impressive and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were a little late in getting there so we only had about 30 minutes inside the church before they closed for the day. As we entered, one of the elderly ladies at the ticket desk told me to take my hat off. I obliged, of course, but immediately felt unwelcome and out of place. At first, I was afraid to even get my camera out and get on with the shooting, but when I did, no verger tackled me or grabbed my collar, so I started to relax a bit.

And relaxing was necessary, because I did not bring either my tripod or monopod, and like most churches this one was not well lit, requiring fairly long exposures for hand-held shots of about 1/5 second.

So first we have some indoor shots. The first one is actually not hand-held. I put the camera on the stairs leading up to the chapel and set it to a 2-second time delay.

The second shot is purely hand-held and shows the beautiful chapel.

The next one is a panorama made with my beloved cell phone camera. Normally you wouldn’t want people in a church shot, but I think this father and his child grace the image and add just the right amount of disturbance in an otherwise very clean shot.

Another cell phone panorama. I can’t get tired of those. Google+ made an automatic version of it that I kind of like, but of course it’s a bit too outrageous to put on a serious photo site like this!

The below picture is an HDR shot using three exposures and denoised with Topaz Denoise, which I’m still learning to use. This part of the church is where the famous King Christian IV is buried.

Moving outside the church presented the opposite lighting problem: too much light. The sun was still high in a blue sky and created some harsh shadows that had to be fixed in post-processing.

Even my wide-angle lens wasn’t quite wide enough to get the whole church in one shot, so the two first images were stitched together from two images that were shot top-down.

The below image was perhaps my favorite of the day, shot just as the sun disappeared behind that little dome.

Altogether, I was very happy with my output from that day. Still, we returned the next day because of some clouds that were hovering over Roskilde that I thought would add a little extra drama. The last one is another cell phone panorama.